It’s time for Brattleboro to stop subsidizing suburbs with Rescue Inc.

If we insisted that change should never be attempted, if there isn’t a guarantee that nothing will go wrong, then there would never be change or progress

BRATTLEBORO — The Selectboard made the correct decision to jettison Rescue Inc.

Brattleboro is spending far more than it should on an ambulance service. Nor are there really, in fact, many people challenging it and of those almost none who offered any reason other than feeling offended by the way Town Manager Yoshi Manale handled the controversy.

Manale may or may not have employed sufficient tact in his interactions with Rescue management, but his information and analysis was sound, and he exercised his authority and duty as he should have on behalf of the people of town.

I listened to the chief of operations of Rescue making his case, beginning with a half hour about the quality of their work. Fine. They've done good work. That doesn't mean they use the proper formula for setting their rates.

The Brattleboro Fire Department, perennially recognized as one if the best in the state, and which also does ambulance and rescue work, assures the town manager that it can handle this service. In fact, ambulance services are commonly part of municipal services around the country.

Will the transition go perfectly well? Doubtfully. But I also have no doubt that in short order the fire department will be running the ambulance service at the same high quality they provide in fighting fires and responding to every other unexpected emergency and calamity.

If we insisted that change should never be attempted, if there isn't a guarantee that nothing will go wrong, then there would never be change or progress.

* * *

Along with good service, our citizens will also get another vital benefit: accountability.

Ambulance and EMS will be a public service under the purview of the town manager, the Selectboard, the finance director, and all the citizens of the town who will expect a satisfactory accounting at Representative Town Meeting.

Rescue's chief of operations tells us that the organization's formula for establishing rates is very simple. It is based on the census and a per-capita figure. That is precisely where it goes astray.

An ambulance service is a transportation business. It moves people. Any business that moves people - or anything at all - must factor in distance as an element of the charge. It is, in fact, usually the major factor. A taxi, a truck, a ship, a plane, a train...you name it, all calculate their charges based on distance.

You don't expect a $10 fare to Vernon and a $10 fare to New York City. But that is how Rescue does it.

If the charge to move a patient across the street from Pine Heights to the hospital is the same $500 as it is to go 30 miles into the countryside and back, Brattleboro - among the poorest of communities - is picking up far more than its share of the overall costs of the service.

Towns that are filled with $400,000, $500,000, $600,000, and $700,000 homes pay half the property taxes that we do in Brattleboro. Our town subsidizes the suburbs that have plenty of money to pay their real share.

Meanwhile, the town's Rescue share is $250,000. Ten surrounding towns have to pick that up. Every town out there has at least one resident who could alone pay $25,000 without perturbing their lifestyle one iota.

* * *

The town manager was presented with a large contract to sign on his 11th day in the position. It's no wonder we read about the chief of operations of Rescue Inc. saying that Yoshi Manale looked a little uncomfortable at the signing.

Manale had almost no experience on the job, no history with Rescue Inc., no knowledge of the organization's history with the town, and most likely far too little information to be negotiating a significant three-year contract in the first place.

So he started investigating the situation. He asked questions.

Rescue told him that yes, they have books. Fine. But that doesn't answer the question of how rates are determined.

Rescue said they have an audit. Fine. But there is nothing in an audit that explains rates.

Rescue said they can show the form from which the state determined they can be a nonprofit. Fine. But there is nothing in such a document that says anything about rates that are charged.

Rescue said Brattleboro has a representative on their board of trustees. Fine. But it is the town manager negotiating the contract, not the representative.

Any competent administrator would be uncomfortable, to put it nicely, with such answers. Exceedingly uncomfortable, one should hope.

* * *

Was I around to hear everything that went on? Not this time. But 17 years ago I was sitting on the Selectboard when Rescue's then-director came before us to explain and get approval for the organization's largest increase ever, to that point.

It was a bewildering and difficult discussion struggling to find some clarity. We finally sighed and reluctantly gave it to them. I regret being so inexperienced at that time. Nevertheless, when I listed to Rescue's current management in a very recent public meeting, it felt like I was reliving that moment.

Then, as now, the presentation begins with a long speech on how many oldsters they saved and babies delivered and all of your neighbors they helped and how hard they work and on and on until one begins to feel, as Rescue cannily hopes, ungrateful and guilty for even asking for accountability.

A state representative to whom I spoke was very sorry to hear of the town manager's resignation, having noted the exceptional effort that was being directed toward housing, the most critical and devastating issue in our town.

When I asked an acquaintance who serves as a volunteer firefighter in a nearby town served by Rescue what his take on the matter was, he replied: “I never understood their charges.”

“I'm glad the town manager took this on,” he told me. “It was a long time coming.”

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