HOPKINTON — The Ashaway Ambulance Association has sent a flier to residents warning that their safety could be jeopardized by the Town Council’s decision to withhold most of the association’s annual payment.
“Without the necessary funding the service is not able to support itself and prosper. As a result, stunting the growth of the organization and putting many lives at risk,” the flier reads.
In the past, the town has funded both Ashaway and Hope Valley ambulance services, but last March, citing numerous shortcomings, the council decided not to fund Ashaway Ambulance. The town withheld the final quarter payment of the annual $45,000 it had budgeted for the association last year, and has withheld two quarters of the current fiscal year’s total of $50,000 budgeted.
The decision has infuriated Ashaway Fire Chief Ron Sposato, a member of the ambulance association’s board of directors, who blames the council for playing politics at residents’ expense.
“I’m only interested in the people of this town,” he said. “I’m not interested in their politics and their games up there at the town. I just want the money to pay the crews to take care of the people in our district.”
Hopkinton Town Solicitor Kevin McAllister said it is Ashaway Ambulance, not the town, that is jeopardizing public safety.
“The notion that the council is jeopardizing lives and safety, which is the [flier] headline, it’s exactly the opposite of the truth,” he said. “The truth is, the town officials received information indicating that there was a potential threat to public health and safety in Hopkinton. They acted immediately upon it, withheld the funding going forward, reported them to the Department of Health, who suspended their license — and town officials, we’ve been ensuring that all these people who need help are getting covered by Hope Valley or Westerly.”
Town Council President Frank Landolfi said the council has had issues with Ashaway Ambulance for several years and the deficiencies had persisted.
“We’ve given Ashaway Ambulance a lot of opportunity to address our concerns and they didn’t really address our concerns nearly to the extent that they need to,” he said.
Landolfi explained that the council had given the association a list of 10 issues that needed improvement, but it had not received adequate responses. The items on the list were drafted in executive committee and have not been released.
Last summer, the town was advised of additional issues by the state Department of Health. Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken confirmed that there had been an inspection and some inadequacies had been identified.
“We went and did an inspection at the Ashaway Ambulance Association,” he wrote in an email. “We did identify some issues then, such as epinephrine that was out of date, and fentanyl (which is Rhode Island’s designated narcotic pain reliever) not on the truck. For that reason, we temporarily withheld their certification to provide advanced life support. The issues have since been addressed, and they are once again able to provide advanced life support.”
Sposato said the certification had been suspended for just two days.
“They came in on a Friday, the last week in July, they did an inspection, which they do quite frequently,” he said. “They found that the epinephrine, which is one of the drugs that you have to carry, was outdated by July 4th or 5th, so once they told us that and they downgraded it [advanced life support] without that drug being on board, Monday morning the drug was purchased and replaced and [we were] back up and running.”
The town also argues that the association has missed too many calls and does not have sufficient staff.
“They only staff one shift out of three, and no weekends,” Landolfi said. “So if you have an issue after 4 o’clock, typically it’s dispatched to Hope Valley or Westerly. That’s an issue… They need to expand the service hours, basically.”
Sposato countered that there were two crews on weekdays and volunteers on weekends and calls were answered. The flier states that the association had responded to “490 calls to date and only relied on mutual aid assistance 15 percent of the time.”
In a written statement, Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, an Ashaway resident, said she had met Sunday with Ashaway Ambulance representatives and had subsequently tried to arrange a meeting between the association and the town without success.
“I have attempted to mediate between the two parties, if there are issues with the ambulance corps, both parties need to sit down at the table and resolve these issues at hand,” she said. “I am obviously concerned for both the taxpayers and the health and safety of Ashaway residents. Our goal here is to avoid a costly lawsuit involving both the town and the corps and having the funding restored for the ambulance corps.”
The association and the town are also arguing over whether the town acted legally when it withheld the funding.
“Just because the Town Council allocates certain money to an organization — it’s strictly arbitrary whether any nonprofits get any money from the town — we vote on it and we include it in the budget, but if serious issues are brought to our attention that require us, perhaps, to not continue the funding because of our concerns, then that’s at our discretion, and that’s essentially what we did,” Landolfi said.
Attorney Kelly Fracassa, who is representing the association, said the town had an obligation to release the funds.
“The funding was approved by voters,” he said. “So now, can the Town Council go against what the voters approved and can they do it after the fact? That’s kind of the legal issue which I’m going to be involved in.”
Landolfi said the town was preparing a press release in response to the flier that would clearly state the reasons the town stopped the funding.
“No one in their right mind, once they see our response, will have any doubts as to why we withheld town money,” he said.