ATL. HIGHLANDS – After a three hour and 20 minute meeting in which borough First Aid Squad members and others praised Highlands and the efforts its first aid squad has made to resolve the question of insufficient volunteers, the Atlantic Highlands governing body unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a $90,000 contract agreement with the borough of Highlands to enter into a shared agreement for paid emergency health services for 12 hours a day. Borough Attorney Jason Sena advised that a termination clause be included in the original contract and making the agreement only effective when Highlands agrees to that addition.
While the Mayor and Council still does not provide access for persons with certain disabilities to attend or participate in the meeting, audio at the meeting was improved over previous meetings and while not always recognizable many persons from the public were able to be identified in making their statements.
Local resident Mark Fisher had singlehandedly deterred the governing body from taking action at its last meeting because there had not apparently been any council discussions of the resolution nor any input from the public before authorizing $90,000 for emergency services 12 hours a day to supplement the volunteer first aid squad. He made a number of statements at last night’s meeting and again asked that the public be allowed to ask questions during the public session. It was only after an hour and 45 minutes into the meeting when, in response to the borough administrator indicating there was no law that would prevent council from allowing questions, in response to Councilwoman Lori Hohenleitner, that questions were permitted to be asked by the public.
Fisher thanked Mayor Loretta Gluckstein for amending the original directive that banned questions, and asked a series of questions, primarily questioning why the shortage of volunteers during daylight hours, something he said has been known for a long time, was never addressed earlier. Fisher also asked why the public never heard of retention issues within the volunteer squad, that approximately only 30 per cent of members actually responded, and said he would like to know how communications works. Fisher also questioned why the funds allocated in the budget from both Harbor Commission and Council expenditures had not been paid from the 2021 budgeted item, saying it was “a crappy thing the borough’s $12,00 portion had not yet been paid,” He was told it had been withheld pending the Highlands agreement consideration. The funds were being considered to finance part of the Highlands agreement, he was advised, drawing his comment that “I wish I had known about that months ago.”
Richard Huff, First Aid squad president and a noted lecturer and speaker on first aid needs at national conferences gave detailed reports how the problems which have impacted volunteer service, how the resolution with Highlands would be a benefit and enable the local squad to be more efficient by enabling time to increase it membership. Hohenleitner apologized to the public, said she was “distraught” that so many people had to attend a special meeting to express opinions on a solution to a problem that should have been expressed earlier, and termed the actions that got the resolution to this stage as “unacceptable.”
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Councilman James Murphy, himself a recent newly accepted volunteer driver for the squad, made an emotional plea to community members to give an hour and a half s week to the volunteer service and help solve the manpower shortage, and urged residents to step up. He also related a personal family emergency that occurred recently in another town when he had to call for emergency help which made him more aware than ever of the need for volunteer services.
Fisher, who became a first aid squad member in 1967, also questioned why several other solutions or possibilities had not been explored and asked who specifically made the agreement with Highlands. That borough’s governing body had unanimously adopted its resolution a month before this borough took the necessary action to agree to it. While he did not receive any direct response on which council member or the mayor entered into the discussion, Gluckstein told Fisher it came from a meeting of squad members and council discussion in October. Fisher also scolded the governing body for not informing the public that problems existed, and added, “I’d like to know how communication works,” referring to the statement he said he only heard at this meeting that only 30% of squad members respond to calls.
There were many questions concerning the fact the borough will pay the $90,000 a year, but residents who need the service will also be billed for services, most of which, a spokesman for the ambulance service said, would be covered by insurance. “We can’t forget our low income residents,” Fisher said.
Regina Keelan, who also comes from a family of volunteers, chided the council for not making the squad crisis known and said, “the buck stops with you.”
Should Highlands agree to the termination paragraph Sena is adding to the resolution unanimously approved, the JFK Ambulance service, beginning Jan. 1, 2022, would be based in Highlands, where the borough is giving members space in the Community Center as well as parking accommodations for an ambulance at the Department of Public Works lot. Highlands currently has a contract with the service for eight hours a day, and is extending the hours for the 2022 contract. Each borough would pay $7500 a month for the paid service to respond to calls in both boroughs for 12 hours during the day beginning at 5 a.m.
Both resolutions appear in full on the official pages for each borough, with the right ot termination agreement recommended by Sena to be inserted in the Atlantic Highlands resolution.
In approving the resolution, council members also asked that a Task Force be established to study the issues during 2022 to resolve the volunteer response to calls to eliminate the need for a 2023 contract calling for paid services.