By Donald Wittkowski
Mayor Leonard Desiderio is proposing a $24 million operating budget for 2017 that raises local property taxes slightly and includes funding to create a professional emergency medical services unit to take charge of Sea Isle City’s ambulance and rescue operations.
In his budget address Tuesday, Desiderio cited the “diminishing ability” of the city’s existing volunteer ambulance squad to provide round-the-clock rescue services as the reason for establishing a paid EMS staff.
Last year, Sea Isle hired a consulting company to oversee the transition from a volunteer ambulance squad to a professional EMS unit that will have eight to 10 full-time employees and operate under the city’s control.
The company, EMS Consulting of Hammonton, is scheduled to provide an update on the plan during the Feb. 28 City Council meeting. In October, the company submitted a report recommending that the city take charge of emergency services amid a declining number of volunteers in the ambulance squad.
“The recommendation we’ve gotten, and that is incorporated into this budget, is that Sea Isle form a paid emergency medical services division,” Desiderio said. “We will still maintain a volunteer corps, but the primary delivery of ambulance and emergency medical response services will be provided through the municipal government.”
City officials have declined to characterize the plan as an outright takeover of the ambulance corps because volunteers will be used to supplement the full-time emergency workers as part of a “hybrid” force. Both squads will operate out of the existing ambulance building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard next to City Hall.
Founded in 1956, the volunteer ambulance corps has struggled recently to find enough people to provide 24-hour service. City officials explained that the volunteers simply can’t devote enough time to the ambulance squad because of the demands of their full-time jobs.
“Everybody has to have a job to pay their expenses,” City Council President William Kehner said.
Desiderio believes Sea Isle’s ambulance corps is the oldest volunteer rescue squad in New Jersey. He praised the work of the volunteers, but stressed that his administration has concluded that a professional EMS unit is needed to keep the city safe.
“We’re in the process right now of a significant change to our operations, relative to public safety,” he said. “One year ago, the administration advanced a comprehensive study of our ambulance and rescue services, as we recognized the diminishing ability to continue with our volunteer ambulance corps in the same manner that we have for so long.”
Desiderio said the city will work with the state Civil Service department to try to hire volunteers from the ambulance squad for the paid EMS unit. In addition to the eight to 10 full-timers in the new unit, there will also be eight to 10 part-time employees, according to City Business Administrator George Savastano.
“We have committed to working with our volunteer corps as we transition, and there remains much work to do over the coming months, but be assured we will not skip a beat,” Desiderio said
The 2017 operating budget includes about $500,000 in funding to create the new EMS unit. That funding is the principal reason the budget will require a small increase in local taxes, Savastano said.
Under the spending plan, the local tax rate will increase from 37.6 cents to 38.3 cents, resulting in an extra $46 in annual taxes on a typical Sea Isle home assessed at $663,000, Savastano said. On such a home, the local tax bill will be $2,539 per year, a figure that does not include county and school taxes.
City Council, which is scheduled to introduce the operating budget on Feb. 28, will scrutinize it before taking a vote. The review process begins with a budget workshop scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday at City Hall.
Also Tuesday, the mayor proposed a $9 million utilities budget for 2017 that covers water and sewer services. Water and sewer rates will remain the same under the budget.
Coupled with his budget message, Desiderio also delivered his annual State of the City address. In it, he emphasized that Sea Isle will continue with a series of flood-control projects to protect the low-lying barrier island from coastal storms.
In related action, City Council introduced an ordinance Tuesday that amends the city’s previously approved watershed management plan. The plan establishes policies for floodplain and storm water management and is key for Sea Isle homeowners getting a 25 percent discount on their flood insurance coverage.
The amended watershed management plan is part of the city’s goal to increase Sea Isle’s homeowner discount to 30 percent by year’s end, Desiderio said.
The homeowner discounts are done through the National Flood Insurance Program, under a community rating system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sea Isle is looking to boost its community rating by FEMA, which would allow local homeowners to get a 30 percent discount on their flood coverage.
About 25 years ago, Sea Isle was in danger of being removed from the National Flood Insurance Program. Now, Sea Isle’s flood-protection initiatives are considered by FEMA as a role model for other communities, Desiderio said.
“In the past several years, Sea Isle has assumed a leadership role in adopting best practices when it comes to ensuring that our properties are built to most effectively protect them from the damage of flooding,” he said.