By Andrew Wroblewski
Dozens of Huntington Community First Aid Squad supporters came out Tuesday night urging the Huntington town board to reconsider a proposed cut in the squad’s funding.
Surrounded by brightly colored signs stating, “Proud HCFAS member,” “Support EMS Volunteers” and “Stop The Cuts They Hurt,” 16 speakers took to town hall’s podium and pleaded with the board to reconsider cuts that Supervisor Frank Petrone has said were proposed to lessen the burden on taxpayers.
“We are not a tax burden. We are a vital and integral part of this community,” Alyssa Axelrod, HCFAS vice president, said during a public hearing about the the town’s proposed $187 million budget.
Axelrod suggested that the board initiate a public referendum to “place this decision in the hands of the public.”
If the proposed budget passes, HCFAS’s funding would be slashed by $194,901, or 8.2 percent.
To offset the cuts, the town wants HCFAS to dip into its $2.3 million in 2013 reserves and to also consider adopting a medical billing system for additional revenue, similar to a system the Commack Volunteer Ambulance Corps implemented July 1, 2015.
HCFAS, however, says the cut would be more like $280,000, or 15 percent, but it remains unclear where the discrepancy between the two sides arises.
HCFAS Director Seth Fischer said the squad’s reserves have accumulated over the last 48 years through donations, not taxpayer dollars.
“This separate funding stream is the sole cash asset that the squad maintains to remain financially viable and services both a member benevolence fund and operations contingency fund to support large capital expenditure,” Fischer added. “Just as no individual would strategize for the future with no money in savings, neither does HCFAS operate from year-to-year without long-term strategies to ensure our continued viability to the community that we serve.”
But Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone maintained his stance Tuesday, stating that taxpayers are being burdened by the millions of dollars that HCFAS has held in its reserves.
Petrone also said that HCFAS must follow nonprofit guidelines, which regulate how much money it can raise and put aside as a reserve. “It’s not a free-form account,” he said.
In a letter mailed to residents of Huntington who commented on the proposed cuts, Petrone cited Internal Revenue Service records that show HCFAS held $2.3 million in reserves in 2013, “a portion of which can be applied towards operating expenses and equipment purchased,” he wrote. Petrone also stated that the IRS filing also shows an additional $6 million in various HCFAS assets.
Petrone said Tuesday that, while he recognizes and appreciates the work HCFAS does, the town has a “judiciary responsibility” to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used properly. He added that HCFAS hasn’t responded to the town’s requests for audited statements and has asked the state comptroller to examine the squad’s books.
Petrone said during Tuesday’s hearing, “The dialogue will be extremely healthy when we have someone like the state comptroller that will assist all of us.”
Alphonse Szigethy, a nearly 20-year member of HCFAS, agreed.
“When we solve the problems of what we have in the excess funds and the rationale on why we have them, maybe everyone on the board will understand that we do need that money.”