*Editor’s note: This article contains unnamed sources. The sources indicated that they feared they would be fired should they be identified.
GREAT BARRINGTON — Although Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad has issued a plea to the towns it provides service to for financial backing and stated that service quality would not change if it did not receive that funding, some of the organization’s employees disagree.
In a recent interview with this newspaper, a few members of the squad’s staff, that asked not to be identified by name, came forward to urge towns like Great Barrington not to add funding to the organization to their town budgets.
“We don’t want the town to invest in something that could actually close this year,” first source said. “Unless something changes soon, (Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad) will close within one to two years. We’re broke.”
According to the second source, the squad is in an especially dire situation. The second source pointed to the nonprofit’s director of operations, William Hathaway.
“We are in this position because of the people behind the wheel,” said the second source.
Last month, Hathaway gave a presentation to Great Barrington’s Selectboard and Finance Committee in a joint meeting. During the Tuesday, Feb. 18 meeting, the squad requested that the town approve a special article to fund a $132,000 annual subsidy that Hathaway said was based on a three-year average call volume in each of the communities that the squad serves. After more than one hour of discussion, both boards voted the article down, which meant that it would not move to the warrant to be voted on at this year’s annual town meeting.
Following the meeting, Hathaway said he was disappointed in the town’s decision. He said he had made the same request to each of the other towns and they all had responded favorably. Despite that, Hathaway said that Southern Berkshire has no intention of cutting off or back services to Great Barrington or Housatonic.
As for the claims, Hathaway says he wasn’t completely surprised to hear that members of the staff had come forward to question his decisions.
“The organization model has changed,” he said, noting that the agency has gone from volunteer-based to employee, paid-based model. “We’re in a period of transition … but it’s not my first rodeo.”
Prior to Southern Berkshire, Hathaway said he ran an agency in Gorham, New Hampshire, and another in Bennington, Vermont.
The unidentified employees disagreed with Hathaway’s description of it being a transition. The second source cited a vote from three years ago where 20 ambulance service employees collected 20 signatures and filed a “Vote of No Confidence,” to its board of directors and asked for the removal of Hathaway.
“It was a vote of a lack of leadership and a lack of transparency,” the second source said. “We have lost a lot of fantastic people with Bill in place … things just keep snowballing.”
Through further discussion with the agency’s consultant, the second source says that, instead of addressing some of the concerns brought forward following the Vote of No Confidence, the source felt that employees were instead told they were to blame. The second source also said they felt nothing had changed.
When asked why they didn’t opt to leave the Great Barrington agency for another area service, the second source said they genuinely liked where they worked. Many of the employees live in Great Barrington and are natives to the area and are invested in their occupation.
“We love this job. You don’t work in a job like this to make money. You have to love the community, the people and the job,” said the first source.
Southern Berkshire currently employs 15 full-time employees and maintains four ambulances and a “fly car,” which acts as an intercepting vehicle, said Hathaway. The agency fields about 90 related intercepts with the fly car each year. The budget includes $1.1 million for 2020 on salaries alone, he added.
“Every business makes operational decisions based upon meeting the service needs and revenue. Unlike other businesses, we can’t close during slow times. We have to be ready to respond,” said Hathaway. “We have been rescheduling to contain our costs and some of my staff are unhappy with the impact on them personally.”
The first source, however, challenged the need for purchasing a fly car, as well as the fourth ambulance, stating that it is money that could be fueled elsewhere within the department.
Moving forward, Hathaway said that the agency is also looking toward a future capital expansion of its headquarters.
“We’re currently housing one of our four ambulances at Great Barrington’s firehouse and our quarters inside are much too tight. (An expansion) will provide a better environment for our staff,” he said.
When asked whether the financially bleak portrait that his employees had painted was accurate, Hathaway said most of the challenges revolved around staffing and getting ahead of the “what if?” scenario.
“It’s tight, but not anywhere near going out of business,” he said.
Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski noted after the Feb. 18 meeting that he and members of town staff had been directed by the Selectboard to meet with Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Health Systems to discuss the matter further.
“As I said previously, they’re closing the door on this. I don’t think the town is against providing some kind of subsidy to the ambulance squad,” said Pruhenski in a recent interview. “We did not feel that there was enough information at the time of the request to make an informed decision, so I was instructed by the board to reach out to Fairview Hospital and Southern Berkshire Ambulance Squad.”
A joint meeting between the three entities is slated for Tuesday, March 10 at Fairview Hospital to discuss the matter further, according to Pruhenski.