County continues push for Ambulnz Service
Putnam legislators last week dealt with two issues with potentially deep implications for their constituents, passing a resolution opposing mandatory COVID-19 vaccines and moving ahead on a fund transfer required to switch county-wide ambulance coverage.
In consecutive meetings on Dec. 22 in Carmel, the Legislature’s Audit Committee voted 2-1 to approve transferring $40,467 from a contingency account to help fund a contract with Ambulnz, an ambulance service hired to provide advanced life support services as of Jan. 1. It will replace EmStar/Empress.
Later, the full Legislature, in its year-end meeting, adopted a resolution opposing any government demands for COVID-19 vaccinations or regular testing of employees at major businesses or students returning to schools.
The latter resolution, which had earlier been endorsed by the Health Committee, declares “that medical treatment and preventative measures are an individual choice” and that “no COVID-19 vaccine should be mandated by law.”
It further “expresses opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates” at any level “that affect parents’ rights to make health care decisions in the best interests of their children.” It encourages citizens to get vaccines, or, if choosing non-vaccination, to heed federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice to avoid infection.
As evidence of public support for the resolution, Legislator Toni Addonizio of Kent, who chairs the Legislature, referred to petitions with more than 300 signatures, plus about 100 emails, denouncing mandatory vaccines.
“The people have spoken,” she said. “They’re very concerned and scared for their children,” she said, adding, “I am not anti-vaccine” or opposed to the vaccines required before children can enter school, “I am anti-mandate.”
The Legislature’s resolution, “a statement of public policy, which is the proper role of this Legislature,” likewise “is not in any way anti-vaccine,” she asserted.
Seven of the Legislature’s eight Republicans supported her. The eighth, Amy Sayegh of Mahopac, missed the meeting. The single “no” vote came from Nancy Montgomery, the lone Democrat, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley.
“I believe it’s people’s free will to do whatever they want,” said Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac. “It’s not that we don’t want you to get a vaccine or wear a mask. But it’s your choice to do what you want. It’s not government’s role.”
Legislator Paul Jonke of Southeast added that “we shut the country down and the [COVID-19] rates are still increasing. Government has got nothing right. I don’t need medical advice to tell me this vaccine mandate is wrong.”
Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel, a candidate for county executive, agreed. “There’s really no clear evidence of what government says,” he said, describing COVID-19 as “a normal thing that’s going to happen, apparently, over the years,” until the U.S. population builds up sufficient immunity to deter it. For now, he said, “especially when it applies to my children, I don’t want anyone telling me what do.”
Montgomery disagreed. When she asked whether Putnam residents wanted unvaccinated people caring for their elderly parents or young children, a round of “yes” rose from audience members opposed to vaccine mandates. She also pointed out that the federal initiatives are not in fact mandates because they allow frequent testing, in place of vaccines, and that the emails she saw from anti-mandate residents were form letters, as in an orchestrated campaign.
“This is just grandstanding,” she said of the resolution, “purely political grandstanding.”
In the Audit Committee session, which preceded the year-end meeting, further debate ensued over County Executive MaryEllen Odell’s decision to switch the provider of county-wide ambulance services. Protests over the change also arose Dec. 15 at a Protective Services Committee session.
Michael Witkowski, chief of operations for Ambulnz, refuted suspicions voiced by local ambulance corps members and residents that the company kept its winning bid artificially low to lure Putnam officials, while in turn being able to charge local ambulance corps and towns high fees and that its ranks might be too thin for adequate coverage.
“We did not underbid this,” he maintained. “We are not looking to fleece anybody.” He added: “We are always open to working with the towns, the ambulance corps and whomever is the end-payer, getting to something reasonable and affordable.” Moreover, he said, Ambulnz informed Odell in writing “that we would honor the things [fee arrangements] already in place, provided that they are legal.”
But Nicholas Falcone, captain of the Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, again expressed concern. Even if Ambulnz holds the line on its charges for 2022, he said, “what’s to say these rates will not come back up” in the future? He also observed that as of Dec. 22, Ambulnz had not reached any agreements with town governments that financially support local volunteer ambulance corps. “Towns are still left to fend for ourselves.”
Falcone also questioned Ambulnz personnel levels. Witkowski replied that of the 176 staff members in the service region, which includes Beacon, 54 would cover Putnam.
Montgomery repeated her objection that legislators never received a copy of the Ambulnz contract. “I just think it’s really odd to ask us for funding for a contract we don’t see,” she said.
Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson responded that the legislators’ sole function is approving the $40,467 fund transfer because “the contract is executed by the county executive.”
Two of the three Audit Committee members voted to OK the transfer, sending it to the full Legislature for action on Tuesday (Jan. 4). Legislator Bill Gouldman of Putnam Valley voted “no,” saying that local ambulance corps and elected officials had advised him that “the new contract will not be the best move” for Putnam’s towns.