County-wide EMS bill needs surgery

Amendment in the works; Stec says Assembly Dems don’t want a new district

ELIZABETHTOWN — A bill that would authorize Essex County to create a special countywide taxing district to fund emergency medical services passed the state Senate for a second time Tuesday, but by Friday, lawmakers were already working to amend it.

The original bill would’ve given the county the authority to establish a special taxing district to fund EMS — the first such district in the state.

That bill was introduced by Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, at the request of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, which has long discussed different ways to make the county’s EMS system more financially sustainable while addressing critical service gaps. Creating a countywide taxing district was a solution floated by Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston two years ago.

But the idea of a new district isn’t going over so well in the Assembly.

State Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, is now working on a new version of the bill that he says would authorize the county not to establish a taxing district but to collect a tax through service agreements with local towns and fire districts.

“The Assembly majority hasn’t liked the idea of creating a (countywide) district,” Stec said.

The original version of the Essex County EMS bill had also been approved by the Senate last year but failed to pass the Assembly before the session ended. This year Stec is working with the chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Local Government, Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, to draft an amended version he believes will stand a chance of passing in the new Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“We’re working to modify the bill in such a way that we think it’ll be more receptive to the governor and the Assembly while achieving the same result,” he said.

There are seven working days left in this legislative session. Little’s office anticipates that the bill will be amended on the Senate floor Tuesday.

If the amended bill passes the Assembly and Senate, is signed by the governor and is ultimately moved forward by the county Board of Supervisors, the revenue collected through the county’s EMS agreements with local towns would help fund the salaries of county emergency medical technicians and paramedics — as well as medic cars, defibrillators and other equipment — that would aid existing rescue squads.

Towns would have the ability to opt out of the service.

Stec’s bill is one piece of a larger plan to design a new EMS system that can alleviate the financial burden of providing full ambulance and EMS services in rural, sparsely populated areas of Essex County.

A pilot program to test the feasibility and effectiveness of such a system is currently being rolled out in Wilmington, Crown Point, Moriah and Ticonderoga, towns where a lot of rescue calls have been dropped due to a shortage of volunteers. Under the pilot program, paramedics and EMTs under the purview of the county will supplement local squads.

This small-scale test is being paid for by a $2.27 million state grant. By improving service in this four-town test area, the county stands to unlock an additional $4 million in state funding to expand that program to other towns.

But the new paramedic and EMT jobs, along with the other infrastructure being built out using this state funding, will need to be funded post-grant. That’s where these service agreements with local towns could factor in.

“These bills would hopefully allow the tools and methods by which we will finance the county EMS system post-grant,” said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland. “The grant runs out in five years. We have to have a structure, a network in place that can take over resourcing that system from state grants.”

Before the new version of Essex County’s EMS bill can move forward in the state Legislature, the county Board of Supervisors must first pass what’s called a “home rule request” — a measure that would essentially signal the board’s support for Stec’s proposed amendment. Supervisors will take up the request next week.