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Lockport Council rejects move to restore city-run ambulance service

LOCKPORT - With Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey casting the tiebreaking vote, the Lockport Common Council this week rejected a proposal to ask the state to restore the city's permit to operate an ambulance service.

The city privatized ambulance service in September 2014, when it was fighting its way out of a financial crisis that saw a dozen firefighters laid off. Last year, the city auctioned off its old ambulances as surplus property.

The city's three-year contract with Twin City Ambulance runs out Sept. 14, but McCaffrey said it renews automatically unless either the city or the company serves notice of wanting out of the deal by July 1.

Alderman Mark S. Devine, a retired assistant fire chief, proposed applying to the state Health Department for a "certificate of need," a permit allowing the city to operate ambulances through the Fire Department. The city surrendered that permit when it signed up with Twin City. The city pays nothing to the company, which bills patients directly.

Devine, R-3rd Ward, was only able to win the support of Alderman R. Joseph O'Shaughnessy and Alderwoman Anita Mullane. Council President David R. Wohleben and Aldermen Richard E. Abbott and Joseph P. Oates voted no, enabling McCaffrey to break the 3-3 tie on Wednesday.

Devine said Thursday he wanted the city to be ready in case it loses an appeal of a state administrative law judge's ruling last October that privatizating ambulance service violated the city's contract with the firefighters' union.

"What Alderman Devine wanted to do is prepare the city for the inevitable, which is losing the appeal," said Samuel G. Oakes, president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association.

"We can't get caught in the trap of spending money the way we did before," said Abbott, D-5th Ward. He is one of four aldermen endorsed by the firefighters' union in the 2015 campaign, but the only one who voted against the union's position.

The city Democratic Committee issued a statement Thursday declaring it will not endorse Abbott for re-election.

"Rick Abbott duped voters in the 5th Ward into thinking he is a principled Democrat when he is not," party chairman Roger L. Sherrie said. He called Abbott "a rubber stamp for Anne McCaffrey."

Abbott responded that he had already told the Democratic Committee he doesn't want their endorsement this year, but he is running for re-election regardless.

The city received a federal grant that enabled it to hire four new firefighters earlier this year, but Abbott contended that restoring ambulance service would require hiring eight more.

Oakes said the city would bill patients, and that could bring in $1 million a year. McCaffrey said based on billing experience from 2013 and earlier, "I would not ever expect it to bring in more than $600,000."

In addition, the city would have to purchase ambulances and equipment.

"The city has no intention of getting back into the ambulance business," the mayor said. "Any way you slice it, it would be a substantial increase for our taxpayers."

Devine said he might introduce a measure to seek bids for a new ambulance contract in hopes of requiring better service and shorter response times. McCaffrey said she's received two complaint letters about Twin City in the past two years.

"Residents are satisfied with Twin City," McCaffrey contended.


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