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Town meeting debates ambulance funding

By Kendra Caruso | Jul 21, 2020
Photo by: Kendra Caruso Winterport residents and Town Council sit in the Samuel L. Wagner Middle School during the town's annual meeting July 16 to conduct the town's business..

Winterport — Winterport residents passed all budget items at the town’s annual meeting, only stopping to have a debate over ambulance service funding July 16.

Residents discussed ambulance service compensation at the 90-minute meeting, at times getting heated. The debate started when Winterport Volunteer Ambulance Director Phil Higgins made a motion to increase funding from the Town Council's recommendation of $30,000 to $75,000.

Fewer health insurers are covering ambulance rides, leaving the cost up to the patient, and some people cannot afford the bill, so it remains unpaid, Higgins said. And much of the department’s equipment requires expensive maintenance work.

Winterport resident Bill Pitula and a few other residents shared concerns about raising the funding amount. He proposed an amendment to the motion, which was passed, to only release the funds after the council established a committee to analyze ambulance costs and benefits to the town, after which two public meetings would be held to discuss the results and vote on whether to release the funds.

Higgins said the department would only be able to continue service for 18 months if the town did not release any funds during the fiscal year. The department has $184,553 in revenue, but expenses of $191,437 for payroll and other reported expenses costing $73,847, leaving an $89,730 yearly deficit.

The department contracts with Winterport and Frankfort, but serves surrounding towns through mutual aid, he said. He also noted that the ambulance association is the only nonprofit in the state that pays towns to use its buildings.

The department will send bills to collections, Higgins said, but writes off unpaid bills from low-income patients. “Ambulances aren't even made to break even, and that’s just the way it is,” he said. Medicare only pays for 80% of what it establishes as the appropriate compensation.

Town Manager Michael Crooker said it would be nearly impossible for the town to establish its own ambulance service with a $75,000 budget. Pitula said that amount alone would not be enough to establish an ambulance service, but he showed interest in determining whether revenues could offset the costs, which could reduce the town’s burden.

The motion and amendment failed in a secret ballot vote. The line item had to be revisited, at which time a resident made a motion to raise the original $30,000 and the same amendment from the first motion was passed and applied to the second motion. Residents approved the second motion for ambulance funding.

The selectmen have not yet established a committee for ambulance funding, and no dates have been set for the public meetings.

Not including assessments for the county and school district, last year’s total municipal budget was $3,602,546, and this year’s budget is $3,547,529, a decrease of 1.5%. The total town budget, including the county and school tax bills, was $5,721,630 last year and $5,766,728 last year, an increase of .8%.

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