CALAIS, Maine — The City Council at its regular meeting Thursday voted to go it alone and operate its own ambulance service.
It will take more than a year before the changeover will occur.
For seven years, Calais was part of the Washington County Medical Service Authority, a quasi-municipal entity that oversees Downeast EMS operations.
A resident from each of the service communities — from Danforth to Calais, Lubec to Whiting and towns in between — serves on the authority’s board of directors. The authority provides service to more than 15 towns, but the three major players are Calais, Eastport and Lubec.
Although grant money was expected to cover capital costs when the ambulance service started, it did not materialize. Calais, Eastport and Lubec bankrolled the $800,000 equipment startup costs.
The authority contracted with the Bangor Fire Department to handle its billing.
All revenues from the ambulance service go to the Washington County Medical Service Authority and are distributed accordingly.
Last year, Calais councilors, unhappy with how much it was costing the city, directed City Manager Diane Barnes to look into the city operating its own ambulance service.
On Thursday, during a council workshop before the start of the regular meeting, she presented a 22-page business plan that outlined the reasons for jumping ship.
The goal, her report said, was to provide high-quality emergency medical service at a reasonable cost.
“As a result, the potential of running an in-house ambulance service full-time based within the fire department could provide an opportunity for cross-training of personnel and an income stream that would help offset the cost of operations to both the fire department and ambulance service,” the report said.
The trend today is for cities to own and operate their own ambulance services, the report said.
“The driving factor is the potential income stream that will help offset part of the cost of operations for the Fire Department,” Barnes indicated. She pointed to Caribou as a community that had its own ambulance service.
The city was aware; the report went on, that if it removed itself from the regional service, it would cost the other communities more money to operate a regional service.
“On the other hand, it may be possible and desirable to have the city contract with and provide coverage to the surrounding communities once established within the city,” the report said.
The report then delved into the nitty-gritty of going it alone and the possible costs to the city including ambulances and equipment. The cost would range from $216,000 to lease three new ambulances to $570,000 to purchase them. It would cost less if the city chose to buy used vehicles, the report said.
Summarizing her findings, Barnes said in her report that “it is expected that, through careful management of the ambulance service, that the city can attain a break-even point without compromising either the availability or quality of emergency medical care.”
Brian Schuth of Eastport, who is a member of the ambulance authority, asked to address the councilors Thursday but was told that public comment was not allowed during workshops. He said he was led to believe that he would be allowed to speak, but Mayor Vinton Cassidy rejected his request.
The councilors then started their regular meeting and after handling other city business, voted unanimously to start its own ambulance service.
Roger Holst of Alexander, who is vice chairman of the ambulance authority, said after the meeting that he was disappointed with the vote.
“I can only speak as a representative of the town of Alexander and in talking with the selectmen of Alexander we expect to continue on with Downeast EMS and encourage [other towns] that are a part of Downeast [EMS]. We will be competing with the city of Calais by the sounds of it,” he said.
He then deferred comment to Jim Porter who is the chairman of Downeast EMS, but Porter, a city employee, declined to comment.
Asked about Schuth’s request to speak, Barnes said after the meeting that she had told Schuth that the council did not take public comment during a workshop, but said he could comment at the end of the council’s regular meeting — but by then he had left.