Ambulance service split a ‘messy divorce’

Posted Feb. 19, 2009, at 10:44 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — Now that the city officially has withdrawn from the regional ambulance authority, the remaining members agreed Wednesday night it was time to move on.

For seven years, Calais was part of the Washington County Emergency Medical Services Authority, a quasi-municipal entity that oversees Downeast EMS ambulance operations.

A resident from each of the more than 15 service communities — from Eastport to Calais and from Lubec to Whiting and towns in between — serves on the authority’s board of directors. The three major players were Calais, Eastport and Lubec, but that number was reduced to two last week when Calais withdrew.

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 Emergency Medical Services Authority and are distributed to member towns.

Last year, Calais councilors, unhappy with how much the regional service was costing the city, directed City Manager Diane Barnes to look into Calais starting its own ambulance service. Barnes put together a 22-page business plan that showed how the city could start its own service. After reviewing the plan, the council voted unanimously last week to withdraw from the authority and start its own ambulance service. It appears, however, the city does not plan to go it alone.

At the meeting Wednesday night at Washington County Community College, representatives from communities near Calais that are members of the authority said they had received letters from Barnes inviting them to enter into a contract with Calais. In return, the city would provide ambulance service to those towns.

It was unclear Wednesday night what the impact would be on the authority if more towns pulled out, but it appears none of the towns has acted upon that invitation.

The first thing the authority did Wednesday night was to accept the resignation of Jim Porter as chairman. Porter is also assistant city manager of Calais and had been chairman of the Washington County Emergency Medical Services Authority for about 18 months.

The board appointed Brian Schuth of Eastport the new chairman.

“We’re in business, and we intend to stay in business,” Schuth told the group. “If there is any question about that right now, we should probably get that out on the table.”

Schuth compared Calais’ departure to a messy divorce. “We have to live in the same house,” he said. “Calais’ plan presumes tacitly and in one place explicitly that Downeast EMS is going to survive in one form or another. Their business plan would demand for them to have backup. How that is going to happen with two potentially competing businesses is unclear, but we know we are going to have to live intimately with Calais one way or another through all of this.”

The new chairman said he planned to meet with Barnes and others to work out a plan for the two entities to co-exist. “I am hoping we can bring some of the other stakeholders to the table, [Calais Regional Hospital and] the county as well, to make sure that we don’t sink ourselves,” he said.

While the authority talked about its future, authority member Bill Daye of Lubec said he wanted people to know that Downeast EMS would continue to provide “quality” ambulance service to area residents.

The board then considered a letter from Barnes that formally acknowledged Calais was withdrawing effective July 1.

Daye questioned the legality of Calais’ withdrawal. Schuth noted the authority’s bylaws and enabling state legislation did not address that issue. The Calais letter was referred to the authority’s attorney.

The group then discussed replacing Danny Carlow, who has been the director of Downeast EMS since its inception. He is also Calais’ fire chief. Carlow was directed by Barnes to set up the competing ambulance service. Carlow attended the meeting Wednesday night; Porter and Barnes did not.

Authority members also discussed finding a new home for their Calais-based ambulances and staff. Right now they are housed at the Calais Fire Station. Authority members have looked at possible sites in and around Calais, but have yet to decide.

Members then reviewed a letter from the law firm of Eaton Peabody of Bangor to handle their outstanding collection debt. According to the letter, Washington County Emergency Medical Services Authority has about $500,000 in outstanding, uncollected bills for emergency medical response and transport services.

“These are individual accounts (about 300 accounts) remaining unpaid after public agency and insurance company reimbursements,” the letter said. No decision was made on whether to hire the company.

After the meeting, Schuth noted that Calais had concerns the authority wanted to address, but the city voted to withdraw before the two sides could discuss them.

“Calais has held the chair of the authority for a year and a half, and while we were aware they were unhappy, they also made no concrete proposals,” Schuth said. “So while we could honestly be accused of taking longer than we needed to, at the same time, I was certainly blindsided that it was their intention to just pull out without intending to work out the issues.”

But Barnes said Thursday morning the authority had had ample notice last year that the city was not happy with how things were being handled.

“So they’ve had plenty of opportunity,” she said. “Again, I just want to say this is a business decision on Calais’ part. … We feel that we can provide a high-quality ambulance service.”

bdncalais@myfairpoint.net

454-8228

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