Prudential Committee members Ed Briggs, left, and Ed McGowan participate in Wednesday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen walked out of Monday's meeting thinking that a study to look at the financial viability of Village Ambulance Service would be paid for by the town, Williams College, the service and the Williamstown Fire District.
That was news to the members of the Prudential Committee that governs the fire district.
The committee held its monthly meeting on Wednesday afternoon, and the main focus was a published report from Monday's meeting at Town Hall, where Town Manager Jason Hoch reported a plan to split the cost of a proposed $20,000 study evenly among the four entities.
"We're looking at some consultants available who have expertise in evaluating what a community might need and the best structure to for that ideal situation," ambulance Board Chairman Dr. Erwin Stuebner told the Board of Selectmen. "We don't know what the best possibility will be."
Stuebner and Hoch serve on an ad hoc committee looking at the financially struggling ambulance service along with Selectmen Chairman Andrew Hogeland, Elaine Neely from the town's Finance Committee, the ambulance's Executive Director Michael Witkowski, Williams College's James Kolesar, Fire Chief Craig Pedercini and Ed McGowan from the Prudential Committee.
The committee was formed after the ambulance service went to the town earlier this year, for the first time in its history, to ask for town financial support. On Monday, Stuebner and Witkowski went to the Board of Selectmen to make their case and talk about what the service is doing to look at options for its future.
One of the steps it is taking is looking for an outside consultant, at a projected cost of $20,000.
On Wednesday afternoon, McGowan told his colleagues on the Prudential Committee that he had not committed to spending $5,000 from the district's coffers, and he could not have done so even if he wanted to.
"It was recommended [at the last task force meeting], but I emphasized, very, very clearly that I don't vote for the Prudential Committee," McGowan said. "I've got one vote, so I didn't make any indication one way or the other."
Pedercini, an employee of the Fire District and not one of the elected members of the three-person Prudential Committee, told the group that he did not attend the last task force meeting, but he also was unaware of any formal request for funding from the group.
Prudential Committee members Ed Briggs and John Notsley each indicated they would need more information about the financial plight of the ambulance service before they would commit Fire District funds to support a study.
"I haven't seen a balance statement a profit/loss, nothing," Notsley said. "I don't think anyone, unless you see that sort of thing — how can you make that kind of determination?
"I want to see some supporting documents. I want to look at something before I make any kind of commitment to do anything, quite frankly."
"If someone came into the bank and said, 'I'm broke. I need some money,' they wouldn't just hand them a check," Briggs said.
All three Prudential Committee members agreed that they would like to see a formal request from Village Ambulance or the task force for funding. McGowan said he was asked at the last task force meeting when the Prudential Committee would meet again and informed the group of the March 15 date.
"I'm disappointed they didn't take the initiative to reach out and inform this group," Fire District Clerk/Treasuer Corydon Thurston said.
"The public expects all of us in the first-responder business to support each other. It doesn't matter what pocket it comes out of because it all comes out of the taxpayer's pocket."
"It would be a positive thing to have something come out of this meeting that suggests our desire to cooperate. Whether it's the district annual meeting or the town meeting, it's the same taxpayer."
Stuebner and Witkowski addressed the Board of Selectmen on Monday to talk about the service's financial woes.
Hogeland told his colleagues that among the solutions on the table are: modifying the service to make it financially viable, some sort of subsidy or takeover by the town or Fire District and regionalization with other area services.
"That's a challenge because they're all private," Hogeland said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet.
Stuebner said he and Witkowski have met with officials from the North Adams Ambulance Service, with which Village has a mutual aid agreement. The Steeple City service is sympathetic to Village's issues, but a full partnership may not be in the cards right now.
"They're not quite in the financial difficulty we are," Stuebner said. "Because they're larger, they don't have to ride the [fiscal] ups and downs. They would not discard the idea of regionalization, but right now [they] said we have to get our act in gear before they'd consider going after that.
"There are a lot of regulatory things to go through before we could do that. Once we get straightened out, that might still be a route on the table."
Selectmen Jeffrey Thomas pressed Stuebner on whether regionalization would mean covering the town entirely with ambulances from neighboring North Adams, and Stuebner assured him that would not be the case.
"That's way down the line, but there would have to be ambulance dispatch in Williamstown," Stuebner said.
Thomas also encouraged the service to be more aggressive in going after users who do not pay their bills, which Village has identified as a major obstacle to fiscal viability.
"Has thought been given, and I hesitate to say this, to enlisting debt collection to support this?" Thomas said. "Basically, we're going to taxpayers and saying, 'Hey, can you help us out?' If we do that, we should exhaust all measures to collect the money that's owed first."
Stuebner, who in the past has said the service is loathe to use collection agencies, did say it is taking a hard look at its third-party billing service to see whether it is properly billing and following up with patients.
Hoch said he sympathized with the service's reluctance to use collection agencies.
"Trying to find the right positioning for that is really challenging," Hoch said. "It's finding that fine line where people aren't afraid to call you the next time they're sick and need an ambulance."
Stuebner reported that Village will receive "gap funding" to continue its operation as an ad hoc task force looks for a permanent solution to its funding crisis. He did not give specifics on the short-term funding needed to keep the ambulance service on the road, but he indicated that it likely will include a combination of college and town support.
"How it will be put together, we don't know yet," Stuebner said.
The one emergency service that is controlled by Town Hall also was before the Board of Selectmen on Monday.
Police Chief Kyle Johnson addressed the board about a general order he issued to his officers emphasizing the department's policy on immigration law enforcement. Specifically, that the department "does not investigate civil immigration laws, as this role falls to the federal government."
The order specifies that officers "shall not stop, question, interrogate, investigate or arrest an individual based solely on suspected immigration or citizenship status," "[shall] not inquire about the immigration status of an individual, including a crime victim, a witness or a person who calls or approaches the police seeking assistance, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual," and "[shall] not perform the functions of a federal immigration officer."
"We don't care about immigration status," Johnson told the board.
Resident James Mahon, a political science professor at Williams, told the board that he hopes to bring a warrant article to the floor of May's annual town meeting that will endorse the spirit of Johnson's general order and make it town policy that said general order could not be altered without 30 days notice to the residents.
Johnson told the board that while he had no intention to change the order, he did not have a problem with the idea of a notice period.
"I cannot envision a scenario where 30 days would make a difference," Johnson said. "I think 30 days is a great middle ground because the [petitioners'] concerns are genuine."
Hoch clarified that police policy is still the jurisdiction of the chief, and the proposed warrant article does not change that.
"It is not our normal practice to bring every general order to the public," Hoch said. "It is certainly not our practice to have every general order be published. That said, I respect the concerns brought forward [by the petitioners]."
In other business on Monday, the Board of Selectmen voted to waive a 120-day notice period that will allow the Department of Conservation and Recreation to purchase a little more than 80 acres of land in South Williamstown that includes the Mount Greylock Ski Club property and heard an update on the state-funded extension of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail into North Adams and Williamstown.
Hoch told the board that trail planners hope to have a 25 percent design hearing in Williamstown later this year and that plans are developing in both municipalities.
"At the moment, it looks like, assuming the bottom doesn't fall out, we could be looking at construction in fiscal year 2019," Hoch said.
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