By Douglas Feiden
Village voters by a lopsided 149-to-11 margin rewarded active members of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps with a welcome boost to their pension benefits.
The landslide vote means that effective on January 1, 2017, the corps’ roughly 25 to 27 volunteers will have their retirement plans converted from the existing defined contribution plan to a new defined benefit plan, effectively increasing their benefit packages.
“We’re thrilled,” said Mayor Sandra Schroeder, who came to the Sag Harbor Firehouse on Brick Kiln Road on Tuesday, June 21 to await the result of the key ballot proposition, which was announced to cheers from the modest crowd at 9:25 p.m.
“It’s very well deserved. These are people who give more than 100% of themselves, who miss birthdays and weddings and everything else, to dedicate themselves 24-7-365 to the corps.”
Stacy McGowin, the president of the ambulance corps, says the group sees the new plan as a crucial tool that will help it recruit new members — and keep its existing ranks from dwindling further.
“Membership numbers have been going down, and more benefits, we hope, will help bring it back up at a time when the cost of living makes it that much harder to get people to volunteer,” Ms. McGowin said.
Adds Deborah O’Brien, the vice president of the corps, “Thirty years ago, we had about 200 emergency calls a year. Today, we have about 750 calls annually — but over all this time, the membership has just about stayed the same.”
Of course, it isn’t all that easy for would-be volunteers to fit the bill for membership in the corps: “It takes a very special person to fill the shoes of a member,” Ms. O’Brien said.
As expected, Redwood resident Robby Stein, a child psychoanalyst and family therapist, and Madison Street resident James Larocca, a longtime top state official who worked for four New York governors, were elected to two uncontested positions on the Village Board of Trustees, each for a two-year term.
Mr. Stein, who is working on environmental issues like flood control and preserving the health of the harbor, and Mr. Larocca, whose central issue has been the creation of John Steinbeck Waterfront Park on a derelict strip of Sag Harbor Cove, each garnered 129 votes, according to the election night tabulations.
A total of 162 votes were cast, including six absentee ballots, and there were three write-in votes for the two trustee positions.
Mr. Larocca, who is the trustee liaison to the ambulance corps, described the pension boost as an “equity issue” that gives the volunteers appropriate benefits that puts their retirement plan on a more equal footing with that of the Fire Department, which also has a defined benefit plan.
“This is a very modest incentive that recognizes their lifetime commitment,” Mr. Larocca said. “These are volunteers whose dedication and training is just phenomenal.”
The referendum’s passage commits the village to switching the ambulance corps, in barely six months, to a defined benefit plan, under which the monthly pension would be set at $20 a month for each year of volunteer ambulance service credited.
Vesting would take place after five years of active service, and members would collect monthly retirement benefits based on the number of years of credited service they’ve earned after reaching the age of 65.
After 40 years of service, for instance, a volunteer would collect $800 a month, and pensions would be paid out at $400 a month for 20 years of service, $200 a month for 10 years and $100 a month for 5 years.
That’s very different from the current defined contribution plan, in which Sag Harbor makes an annual contribution of $700 for each member who has completed one year of active credited volunteer ambulance service. Payable in the form of a pension, the amount can now vary based on investment returns when the volunteer turns 65.
Of course, as benefits go up, so will costs. The estimated annual payable cost of the defined contribution plan in 2016 was around $12,000, according to language in the ballot proposition.
By contrast, the defined benefit plan’s cost for 2017 will be 8.75 times that amount and has been estimated at roughly $105,000, including a yearly administration fee of $3,500. The estimated annual cost per participant is pegged at around $2,350.
But those costs are at their highest in the start-up period and are expected to drop significantly after the first five years, according to the corps’ actuarial calculations.
In other election news, in an uncontested race in North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander was re-elected with 82 votes; trustee Dianne Skilbred earned re-election with 79 votes and David Saskas was voted into his first term on the North Haven Village Board with 76 votes. One write-in ballot was cast for Chris Fiore.