Include provisions on corps member conduct, mutual aid
Capping four months of uncertainty and sometimes-impassioned debate, the Philipstown Town Board on Wednesday (March 24) approved new annual contracts with the town’s two ambulance corps.
The agreements with the Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Garrison Volunteer Ambulance Corps add rules for member conduct — such as not smoking on duty — and mutual aid provided to other municipalities.
The Philipstown corps will receive $345,000 in 2021 and Garrison will get $250,000. Both agencies rely on a mix of volunteers and paid emergency medical technicians. The PVAC operates in the northern half of Philipstown while the GVAC covers the southern end.
Describing the contracts as “virtually identical,” Supervisor Richard Shea predicted they “will stand for a good long time” before needing updates. “Thank the Lord,” he said after the Town Board had voted. On all sides, “everybody’s happy now, which is a miracle,” he added.
Chris Tobin, the PVAC president, thanked the board for the approvals. “I’m glad this is behind us,” he said.
Along with the ban on smoking, the code of conduct directs corps members to eschew “alcohol, illegal drugs or any intoxicant” that could “substantially impair” their abilities; inform the Town Board of any accidents or damage to vehicles; refrain from using vehicles for anything but emergency medical purposes, with the exception of activities such as training or parades; avoid “epithets regarding race, sex or creed” while interacting with the public; and maintain “a neat, clean and professional appearance” that conforms with professional standards.
The contracts also provide that if an ambulance corps disbands, the town has a right of first refusal to buy, for $1 each, any corps vehicles purchased with town money.
Typically, annual ambulance corps contracts take effect Jan. 1, but the Town Board’s attempt to revise the documents to better reflect New York State law and to make other changes sparked friction with some ambulance corps members, who saw it as an attack on their autonomy.
Heated comments, often attacking the Town Board’s approach, flew across social media, and in early February the PVAC warned it could run out of money and be unable to serve the community.
Shea said town officials continued to work on the PVAC contract as late as Tuesday (March 23), when they conferred with PVAC leaders and Putnam County over aspects of mutual aid, a county-organized system allowing town emergency responders to answer urgent calls in other jurisdictions.
The contracts permit mutual aid arranged through the county but prevent the two corps from providing ongoing assistance to another municipality for more than 30 days without the OK from Philipstown.
During the contract negotiations, questions arose about the PVAC providing assistance to Kent and Putnam Valley over five months in 2020.
Shea said Philipstown is the only municipality with four full-time paid staff on duty. He also said that the two corps have “outstanding” response time and numbers of calls answered — “drastically higher than anyone else in this county.” He urged Kent and Putnam Valley to emulate Philipstown in hiring EMTs. “Other towns that we do mutual aid with need to step up,” he said. “Calling it mutual aid is one thing; having real mutual aid is another.
“That’s not to say they haven’t helped us out at times and we’re not happy to help them,” he added, noting that in dire emergencies town borders mean little.
Councilor John Van Tassel, a veteran first responder, said one of his main concerns in revising the contracts was ensuring that “these other agencies are getting out for basic calls, so that Philipstown taxpayers and the Philipstown and Garrison ambulances aren’t burdened with covering two other towns.”
Shea said that despite the protracted discussions, “there was never any animus between the ambulance corps and the Town Board. It was just a matter of working things out.”
“It was pretty uncomfortable” at times, but “there was no animosity,” agreed Van Tassel. “It was us doing our jobs.”
On a related matter, the Town Board dismissed an appeal of a decision to deny a Freedom of Information Law request from The Current to see the two draft contracts. Although Shea told the newspaper on Jan. 27 that the town clerk, Tara Percacciolo, could provide the documents, she denied a FOIL request on Feb. 17, saying that disclosure “would impair present or imminent contract awards.”
The Current appealed to the Town Board. Board members said Wednesday that since the contracts had been approved and released, the issue was moot.