BRATTLEBORO — Nearly a year after dropping the town’s longtime emergency medical provider with little public notice or debate, local leaders plan to ask taxpayers to fund a “to be determined” budget line item for ambulance service.
Town Meeting voters approved $285,600 last March they assumed was for Rescue Inc., which had covered the community for nearly 60 years.
Instead, the Selectboard pulled the contract with scant explanation a month later in favor of having the fire department assume EMS duties.
Local leaders recently received a feasibility study that showed the takeover, sold as a money saver, could cost taxpayers more because it will require additional employees and equipment.
The Selectboard has yet to discuss the study’s findings and, as a result, is set to propose a fiscal year 2024 budget that won’t specify any particular EMS plan.
“I want to provide us the space so that we can make an informed decision and not rush it,” board Chair Ian Goodnow said at a Jan. 3 meeting.
Local leaders surprised residents last spring when they voted to drop a nearly six-decade contract with the private nonprofit Rescue, the region’s largest and longest-serving EMS provider, and hire competitor Golden Cross Ambulance to help the fire department pick up coverage.
Leaders at the time claimed the plan not only would cost less than Rescue’s $285,600 annual fee but also reap an estimated $500,000 to $700,000 in yearly insurance revenue after expenses. But neither the past six months of a test run nor the 112-page municipally commissioned feasibility study by the AP Triton consulting company has found that the town can save money without cutting service.
If the town funds extra fire department staff and supplies to cover all EMS calls, it would collect an estimated $935,626 in annual insurance payments but would still need to pay more than $300,000 a year to cover $1.2 million in expenses — a figure higher than the most recent Rescue contract, the study found.
Reducing the number of available EMS vehicles and staffers would bring down the bill, but also limit service to one 24-hour ambulance and one 10-hour-a-day vehicle — less than the current two 24-hour units and one backup for a town where the closest mutual aid partners are a half hour away.
The Selectboard must approve a budget proposal this month in preparation for Town Meeting, which is set to return to its traditional in-person format on Saturday, March 25.
But local leaders are facing a long list of other considerations, including $4.3 million in proposed facility upgrades to Brattleboro’s main recreational area, Living Memorial Park.
Board members hope that putting a placeholder EMS sum in the coming budget will give them the opportunity to schedule public meetings on the issue sometime this winter.
Said Goodnow: “We have the ability to make a motion on the floor at Town Meeting to affect this amount.”
And colleague Daniel Quipp: “That’s why I want to have a big asterisk next to ‘ambulance service’ that says ‘subject to contract yet to be decided.’”