By Stephen J. Kotz
The Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps will join the growing number of East End emergency providers whose ranks will be bolstered by part-time, on-call paramedics.
Despite the misgivings of Mayor Brian Gilbride, who said he feared a paid program represented the beginning of “the end of volunteerism as we know it,” the village board earmarked $110,000 for the program in next year’s budget.
The program will enable the ambulance corps, which currently has only 27 members, about half of whom are trained as EMTs, to hire on-call professionals who will be on duty at the ambulance headquarters 24 hours a day, seven days a week to bolster both response times and the quality of initial care.
The village board will hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8, at the Municipal Building on the proposed $8.58 million budget, which increases spending by just under 1 percent.
According to village Treasurer Eileen Tuohy, the budget will result in “a very minor change to last year’s tax rate of $2.792 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but that village officials were still waiting for the Southampton Town Assessor’s office to provide it with this year’s total assessed valuation, so the tax rate can be set.
Separately, the board has set a sewer fund budget of $581,143 that will be collected in fees from those businesses and residences that are connected to the village sewer line. That’s $40,000 less than a year ago and that reduction is the result of a $40,000 cut in the line budgeted for sludge removal fees.
All told, from the time the budget was introduced on February 25 until a tentative budget was set on March 25, village officials cut some $360,000 in spending, although the only matter discussed at length at three work sessions was whether or not to phase in the paid first responder program or introduce it all at once.
“I get the ambulance squad’s concerns,” said Mayor Gilbride. “It would be easier to phase it in seven days a week from June through September.”
Mr. Gilbride said he was concerned with the reaction of residents in fire protection districts in North Haven, Noyac, Bay Point, and East Hampton, which are served by the Sag Harbor Fire Department and ambulance corps, if they saw budget hikes of 32 or 33 percent when the towns begin working on their own budgets in September. In addition, he said, phasing the program in, would allow the program to be analyzed for its effectiveness.
“I’m just trying to preempt this,” he said of any outcry, although he did say that village officials had had a productive meeting with their North Haven counterparts to discuss the cost increases and that he wanted to schedule similar meetings with residents of Noyac and Bay Point.
“For a $500,000 assessment, it’s less than 3 cents a day,” said ambulance corps vice president Deborah O’Brien. “I don’t think it’s fair to do it for the tourists and summer people and not do it for the year-round people.”
She added that as ambulance corps members grow older, more of them go south for part of the winter, leaving the corps shorthanded at what used to be the quiet time of the year.
“Every year, calls seem to be increasing,” said Trustee Ed Deyermond. “People don’t come here from Memorial Day to Labor Day anymore. They come full-time. Montauk did try to phase it in, and that backfired.”
Mr. Deyermond added that residents of the fire protection districts need to pay for the services they receive and pointed out that Noyac residents accounted for 43 percent of ambulance calls last year.
Other board members agreed they wanted the money included in the budget, with Trustee Robby Stein pointing out that the stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas is also a busy time for the volunteers.
Although Mr. Gilbride said he still wanted to meet with Noyac residents “so it’s not going to be a shock to anyone,” he agreed to the proposal. “Once people sit down and they start to understand the training, the refresher training and the time people commit to being volunteers, they’ll understand.”
Mr. Deyermond also raised doubts about the wisdom of reducing the amount of money allocated for sludge removal from $80,000 to $40,000, given that the village has already spent more than $50,000 this year and has a number of new developments coming on line this year, including the Watchcase condominiums and Baron’s Cove resort.
Trustee Sandra Schroeder said the village was counting on a pilot program that will use a new type of bacteria to treat a portion of the village’s sewage to reduce the amount of sludge it generates.
Police Chief Thomas Fabiano also asked that $28,000 that was cut from the police budget be restored so a new patrol car could be purchased. “Two have over 85,000 miles and one is over 100,000,” he said. “The mechanic has been telling me I have to start rotating in a new car.”
But Mr. Gilbride said the cut was made to help keep the budget under the tax cap and refused to consider restoring it.