Two local state legislators have introduced bills that would allow municipalities and counties to group together to form taxing districts that could financially support rescue squads, a development that leaders in local counties believe can help solve the manpower shortage in some parts of the region.
State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, sponsored a bill in the Senate and Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, is co-sponsor of a bill in the Assembly that would allow municipalities to set up a designated tax where needed to fund rescue squad services.
Warren and Essex counties have been dealing with inadequate emergency medical response in parts of their counties for years, as volunteerism drops and fewer people have time to get the training needed to become emergency medical technicians. Essex County leaders are planning to create a county-run system of vehicles and manpower to supplement existing squads, while Warren County supervisors are looking at different options to help some struggling squads.
The counties held a joint meeting on the issue last fall, which brought a large response, and discussed actions taken by officials in parts of Albany County to supplement squads there. Stec and Little are planning a presentation on the legislation Thursday in Elizabethtown.
“It would be a tool that is currently not available to them,” Stec said. “Some of them (rescue squads) are getting it done and some aren’t. It’s become an economic issue.”
The bill, A9589 in the Assembly and S07443 in the Senate, would also require research and a report from the commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to “identify challenges facing volunteer emergency services or personnel” and give options for solving it.
Brian LaFlure, Warren County’s emergency services director, said the ability to create taxing districts is one of a number of options to supplement rescue squad service.
“The bottom line is it comes down to funding. Someone is going to have to pay for it,” he said.
Establishing a countywide district would allow for money collected in municipalities that don’t have problems to go toward the services they already have in their communities. For example, money collected from Glens Falls residents could go to defraying the budget of the city fire department, which operates an ambulance service in Glens Falls.
“We understand that taxpayers in Glens Falls don’t want to pay for ambulance service in Thurman,” he said.
Two other bills pending in the Legislature could also help.
One would allow rescue squads that are part of fire companies to bill for their services. Fire departments cannot bill. Stony Creek’s rescue squad and fire department work under the umbrella of one organization.
Another bill would change state law so that emergency medical services are considered an “essential” service, which would open up state funding. Trash pickup is considered an essential service, but EMS response is not.
Essex County leaders believe a tax of 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed value would provide enough funding for the county’s plans. That would amount to a $24 bill annually for a home assessed at $100,000, Stec said.
Stec said the push to improve services also could make EMS more efficient through shared services between municipalities.
JOHNSBURG — Hank and Mary Allen were happy to hear that the dilapidated former car dealership and garage next to their Route 8 home was finally going to be cleaned up.
The former Plymouth dealership in the hamlet of Johnsburg had been run down and ignored for well over a decade. When heavy equipment was brought in last fall to dig up soil that was contaminated with petroleum products, neighbors watched as the deep hole being dug behind the building unearthed pipes.
In early December, as the excavation next door continued, the small one-story home wound up with some water in its basement, which the Allens didn’t think much of at the time.
But the morning of Jan. 13, after a night of heavy rain, a strange noise awakened the couple, and it was coming from their basement.
Mary Allen opened the door and was greeted with 3 feet of water, their furnace underwater and the smell of fuel emanating from the mess.
By the time the water stopped coming in, 3.5 to 4 feet of it was in the unfinished cellar. The fuel oil line had ruptured from the force of the water, and the home stank like oil.
More than three weeks later, the Allens are living with their daughter in Fort Edward, unable to use the home because of the petroleum smell and a lack of heat. Space heaters keep the pipes from freezing. Mr. Allen, 85, has dementia and is having a hard time being displaced from his home of 40-plus years, his wife said.
“This has become a nightmare,” she said.
They are waiting for word from the state Department of Environmental Conservation as to whether the agency will take responsibility, since they believe the excavation by a contractor working for the agency was to blame for the flooding. But they have concerns the state will not follow through.
DEC spokesman David Winchell said the agency “is currently investigating the matter and is aware of the claim that remediation work at the site in Johnsburg has caused flooding problems at the Allens’ home.”
The contractors excavated a large pit behind the former Mosher garage, part of which remained this week. The workers also determined that there was contaminated soil under the garage, which may require the building’s removal.
The Allens had flooding issues in the basement in 2003-04, but brought in a contractor who figured out there was a problem with a stormwater runoff line next to the property, which Mrs. Allen said was corrected. She said she discussed the recent issues with the contractor, who believes the storm drain system was damaged or modified by the excavation.
Since 2003, they have had no other notable water problems until early December, shortly after the work began next door, she said.
“We never had any problems after that (2003 work), no flood or anything,” she said.
The stormwater line runs parallel to Route 8 and connects to a drain next to the former garage.
After the flooding, the DEC brought in contractors to remove soil from the Allens’ basement, put stone on the cellar floor and installed a “carbon drum” to help with fuel vapors.
A DEC representative later met the Allens at the home but indicated the agency “was not going to take responsibility for this” despite their earlier assistance, Mrs. Allen said.
The damage has forced the Allens out of their home for the last three weeks, to their daughter’s home in Washington County. Floors in the house have buckled and doors won’t close correctly, apparently warped by the moisture. An oil smell is still evident.
Their homeowner’s insurance carrier is investigating and the couple has consulted a lawyer, but the process is slow for an older couple forced out of their home during the dead of winter. (Mrs. Allen said Johnsburg Supervisor Andrea Hogan was aware of the issue, but Hogan did not return a phone call about the issue Tuesday.)
“This situation is very sad on top of tragic, and I am not letting the state walk all over them,” said their daughter, Doreen Rabine.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Allen, 72, tries to keep their lives going despite the upheaval. Her husband is not capable of understanding why he can’t be home. They moved all of the valuables out of their home but make frequent trips north to get mail, medicines, etc.
“We’re living out of baskets and boxes,” she said. “This has been a terrible jolt for him.”
FORT EDWARD — The plan to make meals for Warren County seniors in Washington County unraveled further Tuesday.
During a Personnel Committee meeting, Washington County supervisors were surprised to learn that the Washington County Jail was already advertising for another part-time cook. Meals on Wheels are cooked in the kitchen at the jail, by civilian staff. There are two vacant part-time positions, which officials had presumed would stay vacant when the county calculated the cost of cooking meals for Warren County.
Adding the two part-time workers could tip the cost of the program into the red, forcing Washington County to take a loss or barely break even.
Personnel Committee Chairman and Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks was not pleased.
“I asked (county Sheriff) Jeff (Murphy) specifically if he could do it with his current staff and he said yes,” Hicks said.
Hicks proposed eliminating the two unfilled positions at the kitchen — a part-time cook and part-time assistant cook — to make sure that those positions aren’t filled to handle the Warren County meals.
“If we do need them, let’s find out now so we find out if this is a good idea,” he said.
Some supervisors supported his move. Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff said he worried the county was buying “a pig in a poke” and would rather that it was clear from the start that the county was not going to add staff to cover the Warren County meals program.
But the jail might need those workers, regardless of whether the county takes on the meals program, said board Chairman and Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke.
“I think the idea is, if the jail fills up to capacity,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared for the jail to fill up.”
Hicks said Murphy could come to the next committee meeting and ask for a position to be added. But that process would take weeks.
“That’s pretty unwieldy,” Henke said.
It would be more sensible for Murphy to use overtime in that situation than to hire someone, said Hebron Supervisor Brian Campbell.
Budget Officer and Easton Supervisor Dan Shaw questioned whether Murphy had even said he could run the Warren County meals program without additional staff.
“That is not what I heard him say,” he said, referring to an earlier discussion he had with Murphy.
He believed Murphy meant he could run the program without adding more people to the staffing pattern, but that he would consider filling any vacant positions.
Murphy was not at the meeting, and Shaw said no one should change the jail’s staffing pattern without talking to Murphy first.
“Have we ever removed a position from the staffing pattern without the department head here?” Shaw said. “We’re asking questions we don’t know the answers to, and now we’re starting to answer the questions and we don’t know if we’re right.”
Shaw’s son-in-law is a food service manager at the jail, but Shaw said that did not affect his decisions. He disclosed the connection after being asked to do so by Haff.
The mood of the room seemed to be leaning toward removing the vacant positions, but Kingsbury Supervisor Dana Hogan asked the committee to wait.
“What is the urgency to this? (Chairman) Bob (Henke) seems opposed to it. Our budget officer is opposed to it,” Hogan said, noting that several supervisors also had questions.
The supervisors agreed to not vote on the issue yet, but deputized Treasurer Al Nolette to look carefully at the plan and determine its exact cost.
Nolette pledged to do so soon.
“I’d like to be able to sign off on the numbers comfortably,” he said. “That cost per meal is based on the people you’ve got, going from 35 to 40 hours. If six months from now they’ve guessed wrong and you need to backfill a position, you may be be operating a program at break-even.”