Increased costs of ambulance service topped Jefferson residents concerns at a public hearing March 7 during which they reviewed articles on the annual town meeting warrant.
About 40 residents attended the meeting in the Jefferson Village School gym.
Moderator Don Means announced the articles and fielded questions for Selectmen Robert “Jigger” Clark, Greg Johnston, and Pam Grotton to answer.
Of the 32 articles outlined in the municipal warrant, Article 19 to allow the town to raise and appropriate $115,788 to cover the cost of ambulance service generated the most concern.
Central Lincoln County Ambulance Service, a nonprofit organization founded by the towns of Damariscotta, Newcastle, Bremen, Bristol, Nobleboro, and South Bristol, provides coverage to the southern third of Jefferson.
In 2021, the town paid CLC Ambulance approximately $3,500. That number will increase in 2022 to $60,726.
Waldoboro Emergency Services, a municipal department, serves the northern two-thirds of Jefferson. Voters approved $55,060 at a Jan. 14 special town meeting to cover the cost of its services from Jan. 1 to June 30.
Waldoboro Town Manager Julie Keizer said by phone March 8 that she estimates the cost to Jefferson might be about $75,000 for EMS from July 1 to Dec. 31.
But until the Waldoboro Budget Committee begins meeting March 10, she said, she really can’t be sure. Waldoboro’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.
Jefferson Town Administrator Lynne Barnikow confirmed by phone March 8 that $55,062 was put in Article 19 as a placeholder amount until the town has real numbers from Waldoboro. There may be other ways to cover the difference, Barnikow said, should Waldoboro EMS require more for its services.
The cost of Waldoboro’s service in 2021 was $7,000.
Keizer and Nick Bryant, service chief for CLC Ambulance, attended the public hearing to help answer questions.
“Do we have a means to monitor how that money is being spent, as a board do you have the ability to do that?” Rodney MacDonald asked.
Bryant and Keizer each said both services are independently audited annually and Jefferson residents are welcome to attend meetings of the CLC Ambulance Board of Directors or Waldoboro Budget Committee, but as a town that contracts for its ambulance services, the Jefferson Select Board does not have the same kind of oversight.
“We don’t have control over how they spend their money, they just give us the ambulance service … They put in the bid that they need to get,” Johnston said.
CLC Ambulance bases its annual rate on the number of calls it receives.
“The way that our board chose to look at it this year … is we took our budget, we divided it by the number of emergency calls we had last year. That’s the cost … $950 per call,” Bryant said.
CLC Ambulance responded to 50 calls in Jefferson in 2021.
Waldoboro, Keizer said, arrived at its rate by taking its total EMS expenditure and dividing it by the population of the towns it serves. Waldoboro EMS covers Waldoboro, Friendship, and part of Jefferson.
“It’s two different ways of doing it. That makes it even more confusing,” she said, by phone March 8.
Joe Devonshire asked, “Can anyone explain the drastic increase in cost from previous years to this year’s budget?”
Bryant said that Jefferson paid a small amount in previous years.
“Our six founding towns are paying almost $700,000, split six ways. We’re asking you for roughly $60,000 … You’re kind of playing catch up. The towns were essentially subsidizing your EMS coverage for years and the numbers have gotten so large that they’re not able to do that anymore,” he said.
A resident remarked that CLC Ambulance can’t charge Jefferson residents for catch up.
“It’s not catch up,” Bryant said. “This is what your fair share should have been.”
It’s a little different in Waldoboro, Keizer said. “We have to pay employees what they’re worth. We had to make an adjustment to be able to fill the shifts – and we have our shifts filled. But that was a wholesale change not just affecting Lincoln County – that was all over Maine. Our medics are now making $28 an hour, up from $18.”
Keizer pointed out that there was a “mass exodus” of EMS staff across the state last summer.
“We had to figure out how do we attract and retain people. You know, when you can make $18 an hour at McDonald’s, and you want a paramedic to show up to put something in your arm to save your life … we had to do something,” she said.
Residents wondered if it would be a single increase or if they should expect another drastic increase next year.
“I won’t know this for sure until Thursday night after I get through the select board and the budget process. Our number this year was about $110,000 … it’s probably going to be closer to $150,000 next year … but after that it should stay more stable, a level increase,” Keizer said, reminding residents that Waldoboro’s budget crosses years.
Bryant said Jefferson actually went down in call volume last year and stands to benefit from the way the service calculates its rates.
“It’s always going to be a little bit of a moving target because it’s based entirely on use … but it looks like it could remain relatively the same next year,” he said.
Increased costs for EMS are not unique to Jefferson.
Keizer said, “I don’t want you to think our increase isn’t the same as yours. That’s why we applied it based on population and a percentage based on expenditures.”
The six towns of CLC Ambulance split a cost of $20,000 in 2010, Bryant said, and this year they are splitting almost $700,000.
“The increases come. It’s taken a while for it to catch up to the contract towns – you being one of the contract towns,” Bryant said.
“Our towns have to pay up front to make sure the place still runs … You folks should have been paying more … you shouldn’t have been paying $7,000 last year, but it’s what you did pay. I live in a town that’s going to pay $180,000 for ambulance coverage this year. I can’t charge our taxpayers that and have you folks get off paying $7,000,” he added.
Many residents asked if Jefferson could have a different type of contractual arrangement with Waldoboro EMS and CLC Ambulance that might lower costs or make them more predictable.
“I’m sure the board would be open to talking about,” Bryant said. “If you wanted to work into the same formula of our six towns, which love or hate that formula, if you went with a three or however many year contract saying you buy into that formula, then we could work into that. It makes it more predictable.”
Waldoboro is open to a different type of contract, too, Keizer said.
“If we knew to plan for three years, then that would be a little bit different because we could plan on that revenue,” she said.
Addressing the select board, Matthew Moore asked if selectmen explored other options in case the EMS budget fails to pass.
Selectman Clark said, “As a town we don’t have to have ambulance service. It’s not a state law. We have to have fire suppression.”
Moore asked, “So if this gets voted down, and somebody calls 911, they going to come anyway?”
“There’s limited resources we can go to,” Johnston said. “CLC, Waldoboro are two of them. There is Delta that’s out there, but we had them in the past and it does not work … If this fails and (you) dial 911, Delta could pick it up or Waldoboro or CLC could if they’re not busy, potentially, and they could work off a per call basis.”
Karen George spoke up about the nonfinancial value of ambulance service.
“My husband was serviced by all ambulances,” she said. “When he was transferred from (LincolnHealth’s Miles Campus) to somewhere else, he was serviced by CLC. When he went from Jefferson to Miles, he was serviced by Waldoboro … he was always met by our own local people. It was wonderful. I cannot imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have any ambulance service.
“I think you all need to be fiscally responsible – that’s what you’re elected for. But we have to know that we can count on ambulance service,” she added.
Polls will be open for the annual town meeting by referendum from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29, at the Jefferson fire station. Copies of the warrant are available at the town office or at jeffersonmaine.org.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article online and on Page 1 of the March 10 print edition incorrectly attributed some quotes to Joe Devonshire. The Lincoln County News regrets this error.)