Saturday, November 26, 2022

Cornwall Fires Ambulance Corp; New Windsor to Take Over

The Cornwall Town Board and Cornwall-on-Hudson Village Board voted to terminate the Cornwall Volunteer Ambulance Corp (COVAC) during a public meeting last night following strong debates from both sides. The New Windsor Volunteer Ambulance Corp (NWVAC) will take over coverage. COVAC’s attorney argues that NWVAC cannot legally operate in Cornwall under state law.

The Town and Village Boards announced their intentions in a joint statement last week but held a public meeting before making the final decision. Last night’s vote made the plan official.

Both boards accused COVAC of a slew of operational problems, including being unable to respond to some calls, financial concerns, mismanagement from previous COVAC administrations, and declining to become licensed as an advanced life support provider, among others. Currently, COVAC provides basic life support utilizing emergency medical technicians. The Town and Village already contracts with NWVAC to provide advanced life support using paramedics.

New COVAC line officers argue that they have been working hard to turn their organization around and conditions are improving. They asked for additional time to continue getting the Corp back on track. COVAC is now under the leadership of Chief Joe Reardon and President Shawn Conley.

“At any point in time, we made it clear that we were looking for new (COVAC) leadership,” Cornwall Town Supervisor Joshua Wojehowski pointed out, but said it did not come until Tuesday evening. “So now you expect us at the eleventh hour to save COVAC, but where were you the past year?”

“So now you expect us at the 11th hour to save COVAC, but where were you the past year?”

Cornwall Town Supervisor Joshua Wojehowski

Village Mayor James Gagliano discussed what he learned in a recent mayors’ conference and stated, “Everybody believes that you are an essential service, but you’re not.” He said due to a lack of county and state legislation, the burden is on municipal boards to handle providing emergency medical care.

“Everyone believes that you are an essential service, but you’re not.”

Cornwall-on-Hudson Mayor James Gagliano

Wojehowski added, “This is not just about calls and response times.” He explained this is about the Town and Village taking on legal risks if COVAC fails to operate. He also noted that COVAC operates on Town property and that Cornwall could be legally responsible for anything that happens on the property.

Conley, who just began his new post on Tuesday, met with Wojehowski and Gagliano yesterday morning. “It was a delightful and refreshing meeting,” said Gagliano. “Imagine if it had been that way when I sat in those meetings with Supervisor Randazzo.” Gagliano and Reardon both pointed out Conley’s transparency.

Former Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo spoke at the meeting and acknowledged, “A lot of things said tonight – absolutely true.” He recognized there is a “serious problem” and that the Boards are “going to make a decision on this thing ultimately and that’s good for the community.” He noted that COVAC’s leadership had been a problem. “Good people, good volunteers, but apparently just couldn’t do the job.” However, he urged, “Don’t throw COVAC away.”

Randazzo slammed the tactics of the Town and Village, “It’s not good when you attack volunteers at an organization that’s been around for 70 years.” He continued, “You should’ve stayed on the high road, you should’ve stayed professional, and addressed it as elected officials, leadership, for the good of the community.”

“You owe the Corp an apology for the way that you treated them in the media and even tonight,” Randazzo concluded.

“You owe the Corp an apology for the way you treated them in the media and even tonight”

Former Cornwall Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo

Cornwall Town Councilwoman Virginia Scott apologized. “I want to sincerely apologize for some of the things that were said on that fact sheet. I did not know about it until I read it.” She credited COVAC with making several improvements and said she witnessed dedicated people come in to help. However, she supported the ouster. “Ultimately, we have to do what’s right for our community.”

Former Town Supervisor Randy Clark urged the Boards to give an in-depth look to NWVAC. “They may not be as pure as we all think they are.” He suggested there “may be some issues behind the scenes.” He described an upstate town that recruited high school students who turned a struggling ambulance corp around and have been saving lives. He pointed out the money is already in the budget to keep COVAC running.

“They (NWVAC) may not be as pure as we all think they are”

Former Cornwall Town Supervisor Randy Clark

Former decade-long Village Mayor Brendan Coyne spoke up at the meeting. He understood that COVAC recently had problems, but has had some success in rectifying them. “COVAC has been a vital part of our community for nearly seven decades,” he said. “COVAC has saved hundreds of lives.”

Coyne acknowledged that both boards have been working to solve the problem. “I urge you to keep working,” he said. “To do otherwise would diminish the service COVAC has given to Cornwall and dishonor the legacy of the volunteers.” He suggested creating a commission to help oversee COVAC, such as what is done with police and fire departments. “Let’s mend COVAC. Let’s not throw COVAC away.”

“Let’s not throw COVAC away”

Former Cornwall-on-Hudson Mayor Brendan Coyne

Reardon told the Boards, “We’ve managed to get our coverage up since January,” which was part of what both Boards requested. “Change is needed,” he conceded, “But I feel if you close as at this particular moment without us talking about those changes first, there might not be a way to make those changes.” Reardon and Conley suggested that integration with NWVAC would be an option, but not if COVAC is closed first.

Cornwall resident Linda Muller, wife of longtime COVAC member Charlie Muller, also acknowledged previous problems. However, she argued that changes were made. “The change started in January where calls weren’t dropped and were higher than the national standard.” She said the Boards should allow COVAC’s new leadership time to bring in outside experts to help guide them. “What you said and what you did was not true,” she said. “Transparency did not happen.”

COVAC Attorney Jeffrey Reisner, who represents EMS agencies across the state, explained that COVAC has a Certificate of Need, which is a Department of Health Certificate of Operating Authority to operate in the Town of Cornwall. According to Reisner, NWVAC does not have that. “If you take COVAC’s C.O.N. off the table by a systematic and intentional contract action, Article 30 of the Public Health Law and New York State Department of Health policies prohibit New Windsor from coming and operating.”

Reisner called the plan “reckless” and explained that response times, mutual aid, and back-filling are not unique to Cornwall, but rather a universal problem across the country. “Heaven forbid you have a mass casualty event in this town where you need every ambulance and every trained EMT available to respond to an elementary school where there’s been a mass shooting,” he stated. “You have three less ambulances and you have a whole room full of less people to make that response.”

Heaven forbid you have a mass casualty event in this town where you need every ambulance and every trained EMT

COVAC Attorney Jeffrey Reisner

Reardon pleaded with the Boards, “I’m hoping you guys can just consider giving us at least until the end of the year to see what progress we can make on what you already requested from us, as well as what we can maybe talk about with an integration with New Windsor to be a giant agency.”

Reisner added, “COVAC is here, willing, ready, and able to talk and work to be part of the solution.” He called this a “reckless miscarriage of justice” and said the new state of affairs, including the new COVAC administration, need to be considered.

Cornwall-on-Hudson Deputy Mayor James Kane explained that this issue has been under review since last summer. “You need to know that as a Board, we approach this matter in a very deliberative, cautious, and judicious manner – not in a reckless one.” He noted that all aspects were considered before reaching a decision. “These over dozen factors were considered through the lens of protecting the safety and health of our residents.”

“We approach this matter in a very deliberative, cautious, and judicious manner – not a reckless one.”

Cornwall-on-Hudson Deputy Mayor James Kane

Cornwall-on-Hudson Trustee David Carnright agreed with Kane, “When someone calls and their life is on the line, that’s the most important thing for me.” He credited all the volunteers from throughout the years, but said it comes down to what is best for the community. “I think a different platform is necessary at this time.”

Cornwall-on-Hudson Trustee Bill Braine described foundational difficulties surrounding COVAC. “Those issues aren’t going away,” he noted. He too credited the current and past volunteers for their hard work. “I believe it is the right option right now.”

Gagliano said COVAC’s replacement “makes the only sense for the path forward for Cornwall.” Wojehowski declared, “We cannot delay this any longer.”

After adjourning for an executive session, both Boards returned to the public meeting and reached five votes to terminate the contract with COVAC and begin using NWVAC.

“The decision that is made here in this room tonight could very well kill somebody in the next town over,” Reisner exclaimed. “To remove EMS personnel to operate those ambulances is likely to lead to lives lost.”

Gagliano concluded, “When the dust settles, people will understand this.”

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