Volunteer first aid squads in Old Bridge fear future without municipal funding

OLD BRIDGE – William Bathe, the president of the Madison Park Volunteer First Aid Squad, is concerned about the future of his squad.

“I’m worried about my organization going under and me having to put the locks on the door, which I am not looking forward to doing at all,” he said.

During a recent meeting, Bathe and Capt. George Antonelli pleaded with members of the Old Bridge Township Council to release funds budgeted for the community’s volunteer squads.

Each fiscal year, the township allots $45,000 each to the five volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) squads – the Old Bridge First Aid and Rescue Squad, Central Old Bridge EMS, Cheesequake First Aid, Laurence Harbor First Aid and Madison Park First Aid.

However, municipal officials have been withholding the funds due to pending litigation between Old Bridge Township EMS (OBTEMS) and the municipality over contract issues.

Township Attorney Ken Lozier said the lawsuit was filed by OBTEMS. He said he would not discuss specifics of the pending litigation.

“Every volunteer company has a representative on the OBTEMS board, which means that assuming everybody voted to file that suit on behalf of OBTEMS,” he said. “The funds have been budgeted, but they are not appropriated at this time because of the litigation.”

Richard Trenk, of McManimon, Scotland and Baumann, LLC, Roseland, represents OBTEMS. He said OBTEMS and its parent volunteer ambulance squads have a long and decorated history of service to the community.

“Unfortunately, for the past year, OBTEMS and the volunteer ambulance squads have been locked in a stalemate with the township and the administration over their refusal to provide reimbursements mandated under the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute and to release budgeted funds for the volunteer ambulance squads,” he said.

Trenk said the administration has cut off critical funding for the volunteer ambulance squads and threatened to seize ambulances and equipment.

“After OBTEMS was forced to go to court, Assignment Judge Alberto Rivas [in Middlesex County Superior Court] enjoined the township from seizing two ambulances which OBTEMS has used to provide emergency medical services to the community of Old Bridge including over 9,400 calls since 2015,” he said. “The Appellate Division affirmed the injunction.”

Bathe said he has been a member of the Madison Park Volunteer First Aid Squad for 32 years. The squad has been in operation since 1957.

“People have been so loyal, one member actually took out a second mortgage on his house to help the squad put up the building,” he said. “We want to continue our tradition … without the money we cannot.”

Bathe said it costs a lot of money to train members and to pay for insurance, fuel, maintenance and supplies.

“It’s a small fortune,” he said.

Antonelli, who said he has been a volunteer since 1987 and is also a volunteer member with the Madison Park Fire Company, said he understands there is a pending lawsuit, however, the volunteer first aid squads have been locked in a stalemate with the township and administration in regard to the funds.

“Because of the lawsuit, you are taking it out on the volunteer squads,” he said.

Volunteer squad members said donations are down 50 percent and the squads rely on the funding from the municipality. Three of the five volunteer squads do not bill for their service.

Ward 4 Councilman Mark Razzoli sent a letter to Mayor Owen Henry on Dec. 22 expressing his “frustration and dismay at the lack of concern your office is exhibiting regarding the safety of our residents.”

“Your insistence on withholding financial support to the EMS squads puts us all in jeopardy, and one day soon the rigs may not be ready to respond in the event of an accident or other medical emergency,” Razzoli wrote in the letter.

Razzoli said the $45,000 stipends for the five first aid squads were previously approved by council vote to ensure EMS services are available to Old Bridge.

At a council meeting on Jan. 7, Razzoli motioned to release the $45,000 stipends to each squad budgeted for the 2018 fiscal year. Ward 3 Councilwoman Edina Brown seconded the motion.

Township Attorney Mark Roselli advised the council not to move on the motion due to the pending litigation.

“It’s a matter that is premature, it shouldn’t be preceded because of the fact that it does involve litigation matters,” he said.

Many council members said although they sympathized with the volunteer squads, they also needed to heed the advice of the township attorney.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.