N.Y. legislature approves $4.6M for ambulance service
Erie County officials are responding to the shortage of local EMS providers
By Harold McNeil
The Buffalo News
ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — Erie County lawmakers approved the spending of $4.6 million in surplus funds to cover start-up costs for a new county ambulance service, but sparred a bit over whether they should seek more input before going forward with the plan.
The Legislature voted 6-3 on Thursday during its regular business session to spend the $4.6 million toward stepping in to fill the void left by a shortage of EMTs and a lack of ambulance services in some rural areas of the community.
Lawmakers agreed that there is a dire need for the service, particularly in the Southtowns, but some questioned whether County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz's pitch for it during his State of the County address was the best way to go about filling the void.
Legislator James Malczewski of Elma expressed concerns about the process for creating a new county ambulance service.
"I thank County Executive Poloncarz for putting this forward. I think it's something that's tremendously needed. However, it was very abruptly put forward with no discussion, and I think all the stakeholders — meaning volunteer fire companies, hospitals — should all be involved in determining how this moves forward," Malczewski said.
Legislator Christopher D. Greene of Clarence would like to see the county do a better job of exploring other options.
"We have not explored the option to do a public/private partnership, as we've done with the vast majority of our suburban districts," he said. "We need input from volunteer fire companies, ambulance services (and) emergency room administrators."
Legislature Chairwoman April N. M. Baskin said she is in favor of the county stepping in to fill the void, particularly if the employees doing the work are adequately compensated.
She said that rural communities have issues with access to ambulance services, particularly because one of the leading service providers, AMR, doesn't have much of a presence in those areas.
"When it comes to life and death situations, the quicker the county can just respond and intervene, the better," she said. "That's what the county does. We take care of and protect vulnerable communities and people who are in vulnerable situations."
Meanwhile, the Legislature on Thursday also unanimously passed a law that will provide property tax exemptions for volunteer first responders. It offers those who have served a minimum of two years up to a 10% tax exemption on the assessed value of their primary residences as a means to encourage more people to become volunteer firefighters and EMTs in their communities.
Legislator John J. Gilmour of South Buffalo said the private companies pay their EMTs an average of about $18 an hour, and they are struggling to attract new hires.
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