Rescue Squad ponders petition drive

MANCHESTER - March Town Meeting is still a way off, but the Manchester Rescue Squad is mulling over whether to begin circulating petitions to get on town warnings to drum up additional public financial support for its services and a new ambulance.

An alternative might be to incorporate that financial assistance directly into town budgets, and the rescue squad's leadership is having discussions with both the Manchester and Dorset Select Board to determine the best approach.

"We're in the process of going to all the towns we support; we've been to Manchester and Dorset and I think we'll have to do a petition for both towns," said Ben Weiss, the president of the rescue squad's board of directors.

The Manchester Rescue Squad provides ambulance and emergency medical services for residents in Manchester, Dorset, Danby, Mt. Tabor and parts of Rupert and Winhall, and responds to more than 1,200 calls per year, according to its website.

Manchester currently provides the squad with $10,000 in direct cash support, but that is scheduled to decline to $5,000 next year and disappear completely the year after. That is part of an agreement the squad struck with the town which allows the squad to lease its facility and space at the town's public safety building rent-free. The town also supplies dispatch services to the squad, and reckons the value of that "in kind" support at roughly $200,000.

The squad would like to see Manchester's direct monetary support rise to about $35,000. It could be built into the town's budget or come about through a successful special article on the warning, placed there through a successful petition drive.

Dorset, meanwhile is currently providing the squad with $18,000 towards its total annual budget of $716,000, but the rescue squad is hoping to see that increase by $17,500, for a grand total of $35,500, in part to assist them with replacing an aging ambulance. The additional support from Manchester would also help towards financing the cost of the replacement ambulance, as well as helping defray other expenses.

Obtaining that new revenue is "critical," said Mike Casey, the rescue squad's chief operating officer.

The rescue squad currently operates three ambulances, and the oldest one has logged more than 160,000 miles on it, he said.

"We try to replace one every three years," he said. "We're overdue on replacing one but we don't have the funds."

New ambulances don't come cheap - a brand new one can cost around $130,000, just for the ambulance. The equipment that goes inside it is extra, he said.

The squad offsets its costs in several ways: Through support from towns in its coverage area, which accounts for less than 5 percent of its total budget, as well as a fundraising campaign, which netted about $70,000 last year. It also offers a subscription service for transportation to area hospitals. For $95 per year, individuals can ensure that an ambulance will transport them to a hospital as often as needed over a 12 month period without additional charge. That accounts for about $75,000 in revenue over a year, Weiss said.

But the bulk of its revenue - approximately $500,000 - comes from its hospital transportation, which typically gets paid through a patient's insurance coverage. Reimbursement for those services, whether from private insurers or Medicare, sometimes lags far behind the services provided, however, and that lag time helped contribute to a roughly $60,000 deficit in last year's budget, Casey said.

While sympathetic to the rescue squad's situation, Manchester Town Manager John O'Keefe said that there were also several other pressing needs the town faced amid competing demands on its tax capacity.

Paving and plowing roads, along with new equipment for the police and fire departments, makes for some complicated budgetary decision-making, he said. "There's a lot of moving pieces," he said. "At this point we're trying to maintain services. We're having to make some pretty tough decisions without including a $35,000 appropriation for the ambulance fund."

The town could opt to build that request directly into its overall budget it will present to voters at March Town Meeting, or it could warn it as a special article that votes would weigh in on separately, which would then be added to the total budget if it passed.

"It's certainly their right to try a petition," he said.

He added he thought the town and rescue squad enjoyed a good working relationship and understood each other's point of view, but that there was only so much townspeople could afford in municipal taxes.

He said the town is still paying off the debt service on the public safety building and that would consume about $120,000 this year and next. A new dispatching console may also be needed soon, which could be more than $200,000. At some point not too far off, the parking area at the public safety building will have to be paved, which could run upwards of $100,000, he said.

The Dorset Select Board has also been approached by the rescue squad for help, and expects to revisit the issue again at their next meeting, said Chris Brooks, the board's chairman.

They will be looking at the same question as their counterparts in Manchester are exploring - whether to make it part of the town budget's or support it as a special warned article, he said.

"One of the things we're trying to do as a select board is make sure everyone is treated the same way," he said.

The select board could add it as a separate article, Brooks said, or the squad could circulate their own petition and obtain the needed signatures. Five percent of the voters on a town's checklist are required for that. Currently in Dorset, there are about 1,650 voters on the checklist, according to the town clerk's office, meaning that about 85 signatures would be required.


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