Future staffing of the Wiscasset Ambulance Service will be determined at the annual town meeting by referendum in June, with residents to decide which of two proposed budgets to support. The Wiscasset Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to present the budgets as two separate warrant articles during their final meeting with the Wiscasset Budget Committee on Tuesday, April 26.
Chair Ben Rines and Selectman Jeff Slack were opposed, saying it would limit voters’ ability to turn down the budget for the ambulance service altogether.
The budgets voters will consider, $415,840 or $478,250, represent the difference between a professional department staffed 24/7 with hourly workers, or a department that blends hourly employees with volunteer members serving on-call.
The vote comes as the Wiscasset Ambulance Service roster has dwindled to about seven. When presenting the $415,840 budget in March, recently hired Director Toby Martin said he planned to reach out to former ambulance service members in hopes they would return to fill enormous gaps in the schedule.
The Wiscasset Ambulance Service reported 25 members on its roster in 2015, although only a handful of members were active at the time. The effort to reach out to former members and recruit new ones does not appear to be going well, budget committee member John Merry said.
In recent weeks, a handful of members have resigned or been removed from the roster, in part due to a new policy requiring members to work four on-call overnight shifts a month, Martin said. Former Deputy Director Mark Webber, Sue Anderson, Dan Averill, and Marc Babineau are among the recent departures.
Wiscasset’s town website still lists a 24-member roster for the ambulance service, but of the members on the roster, Rory Putman, Steven Higgins, Meriel Longley, Dave Renfro, Craig Balsdon, Katie Higgins, Bob MacDonald, Sam Schmal, and Kaitlyn Iuzzilino are no longer with the department.
Concerned a budget that relied on a blended staffing model of paid and volunteer workers would not be enough to sustain the ambulance service through the fiscal year, selectmen asked Martin to submit a new budget that guaranteed station coverage for the service. Martin submitted a revised budget of $478,250 in April, which provides for hourly workers to staff the station 24/7 at the paramedic level.
The proposed budgets for 2016-2017 are a 45 percent or 67 percent increase from the current budget of $268,288; a budget based on stand-by pay and call pay for volunteers.
In the 2015-2016 budget, members were paid stand-by rates of $4-$5 an hour. The pay scale switched to an hourly wage of $10-$13, based on licensure level, when calls came in.
Following former Director Roland Abbott’s departure in September 2015, the ambulance service switched to a blended pay scale of hourly wages for daytime coverage and stand-by and call pay for overnight hours and weekends, under the direction of interim Director Joe McCole.
Per diem paramedics were brought in at $17 an hour, a $4 increase from the budgeted call pay for paramedics at $13. Advanced emergency medical technicians were given a raise to $12.75, a $0.75 increase from the budgeted call pay of $12.
Wages for basic EMTs remained at the call pay of $11, although they were paid hourly for staffing the station during daytime hours. According to Martin, per diem paramedics were previously paid an hourly wage for overnight coverage while volunteer members received only the standby pay of $3-$5 an hour.
Martin said he put an end to the practice, which had caused some dissention among the remaining membership; all staff now receive a modest stipend for overnight coverage. However, large gaps continue to exist in the schedule, especially for weekend and overnight coverage.
As of April, 87 percent of the ambulance service’s 2015-2016 budget has been expended. In March, year-to-date actuals reflected the ambulance service’s budget was 91 percent expended, due to a $52,000 write-off for bad debt that had accumulated over a number of years.
The write-off was removed from the ambulance service budget, which is not expected to be over-expended by the end of the fiscal year, Town Manager Marian Anderson said.
Martin has worked an average of 130-144 hours a week since beginning as director in late March to fill gaps in the schedule and prevent the current budget’s over-expenditure, he said. It is something he is willing to do for the remainder of the fiscal year, but not afterward, he said.
If the paid staffing model for the ambulance service does not pass, the service must continue to rely on volunteer members, with station coverage determined on a week-by-week, month-by-month basis, Martin said.
If both of the ambulance service’s budgets are voted down, it could mean an end to the department, selectmen said. Privatization of the ambulance service would mean a loss of local control and lost revenue brought in by the ambulance service for the town, Martin said.
In a non-binding referendum question on the June 2015 warrant, voters were asked if Wiscasset should outsource its ambulance service; voters said no by a wide margin.