BRATTLEBORO — This town's municipal government takeover of emergency medical services, intended to save money, instead is racking up higher costs.
At its July 5 meeting, the Selectboard voted to raise the salaries of local firefighters with EMS training by up to 10 percent - draining the last dollars of a projected surplus less than a week into the change.
The board, following a recommendation from former Town Manager Yoshi Manale, had hoped to swap a $285,600 annual assessment from Rescue Inc. - Windham County's largest and longest-serving EMS provider - with a lower-priced $75,000 contract with Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, N.H., which is helping the fire department assume the work through a one-year transition plan.
But since approving the switch April 19, the town has lost $48,020 in dispatch fees from Rescue and spent $38,721 for a feasibility study of the takeover and $70,000 on a severance package the Selectboard gave Manale to resign after only five months on the job.
The board voted to approve an estimated $52,000 for EMS staff raises. Added to the earlier actions, the town's spending now matches what it would have paid Rescue this fiscal year if it hadn't dropped its nearly 60-year contract with the private nonprofit provider July 1.
That collective figure is expected to rise even higher, as it doesn't include training costs estimated to be in the five figures. The board also is set to consider whether to spend $16,980 for medical consulting and $50,000 to increase its number of Golden Cross ambulances from two to three.
The latest spending has sparked more questions from residents, who have expressed appreciation for the fire department but don't understand why municipal leaders approved the takeover with little notice or public debate before the feasibility study is set for completion later this year.
Residents are particularly concerned about the town's EMS backup plan to turn first to Keene, N.H., and Greenfield, Mass. - each a half hour away.
In response, municipal leaders met with Rescue on June 6 to inquire about mutual aid coverage, although the multi-hour session ended without agreement.
“We look forward to rebuilding a healthy working relationship,” interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland wrote the provider afterward.
But Selectboard member Tim Wessel went on to share that statement with reporters before it was received by Rescue, upsetting the head of the provider's board of trustees, Kathleen Hege.
“My frustration with your release of the letter was the fact that again Rescue Inc. found itself second to the public and the media in reviewing correspondence from the town,” Hege wrote Wessel.
Wessel, in response, said he singlehandedly distributed the letter “because I was growing concerned about my constituents not having any information surrounding the mutual aid question before July 1.”
“I assumed Rescue had received the letter,” Wessel wrote Hege, “but didn't imagine you would be offended that a member of a publicly elected body shared an important response about an issue that our entire community cares about.”
The board approved more money for firefighters Tuesday at a meeting where Brattleboro Fire Chief Leonard Howard reported an otherwise smooth first few days of the takeover.
“We're certainly going to have bumps in the road,” Howard said, “but I'm very happy with how we started out.”