HERMON, Maine — Though not prepared to reverse their month-old vote to bring emergency medical services under the auspices of the town’s Fire Department, town councilors did agree Thursday night to another round of talks with members of the volunteer rescue crew that has been serving community for 42 years.
This time, however, the discussion with be guided by an impartial facilitator, a measure to which councilors and representatives from the Hermon Volunteer Rescue and First Aid Squad agreed during a council meeting that drew 40 to 50 people, most if not all of them there in support of the volunteer crew.
In a related step, the four councilors present also agreed to set aside up to $2,500 for the facilitator’s services.
The ambulance services issue has been heating up in recent months. Volunteer medics and their supporters have been talking about circulating a petition seeking a reversal of the decision to implement the fire-based model and if that fails, seeking a townwide referendum vote.
Resident Ralph Carr, a former council chairman who now heads the school committee, has tried to get the two sides to work out their differences. His leadership appears to have had some effect, with people on both sides of the aisle agreeing to give working together another shot.
With three of the town’s four councilors absent Thursday night, Chairwoman Sharon Nickerson asked that remarks be kept brief Thursday night, given that three of the councilors were not present and wanted to be involved in the discussion. She also noted that the joint meeting will be public and will offer ample opportunity for comments and questions.
Several Hermon Rescue proponents, however, spoke up regardless.
“I’m not sure everyone understands the magnitude of this issue,” resident Donald Page said. “Polarization is a strong word, but it has polarized the community.”
Page said that given the importance of emergency medical services to the town, he thought town officials should have done more to get residents’ input before making a decision on how those services will be provided in the future — and by whom. “We need more than five or six people making this decision,” he said.
Though relations between town officials and Hermon Rescue have been rocky at times, they took a turn for the worse late last year, when the two sides found themselves at an impasse.
In December, the council voted 6-1 to reject the most recent in a series of contract offers from Hermon Rescue. That proposal called for a three-year agreement at a cost of $40,000 for the first year of service, $50,000 for the second year and $60,000 for the year after that.
In January, local officials announced they were seeking proposals for ambulance services, noting that years of negotiations had failed to yield a contractual agreement with the local crew.
After a review of proposals from three area entities, one of which was Hermon Rescue, the councilors instead opted to go in a different direction. During a workshop in mid-February, they voted 6-1 to move toward a fire-based emergency medical services model that would bring ambulance services under the auspices of the town’s Fire Department.
The move caught members of the volunteer squad and their supporters off-guard.
In recent months, Town Manager Clinton Deschene has said consistently that the existing squad’s level of service never has been a problem. The problem has been the absence of a contract, which he earlier noted was both a risk and a source of concern for a Maine Municipal Association staff attorney the town had consulted.
Three organizations responded by the time the Jan. 31 deadline for bids rolled around. They were Hermon Volunteer Rescue, G&H Ambulance and Capital Ambulance.
A day after the decision to go with the fire-based model, Hermon Rescue Chief Sherman Mason said the council’s decision left some of the group’s roughly 30 members feeling angry, betrayed and baffled.
“When we went into this, it was supposed to be [based on bids] and essentially, they disregarded the bids and went another way without letting anyone know why,” he said at that time.
Another point of contention was that the volunteer crew is nearly finished with an expansion of its headquarters on Billings Road, a project undertaken in good faith.
During Thursday’s meeting, Deschene noted that the fire-based model is common in Maine and nationally, largely because it has proved efficient and cost-effective.
Asked what the model would cost to implement in Hermon, Deschene said Fire Chief Ray Pipes has submitted a budget showing that adding emergency medical services to the Fire Department’s duties would cost $16,000 more in taxpayer dollars.
Hermon Rescue’s Tony Reynolds, however, countered that the nearly 30 members of the volunteer squad were willing to continue serving residents at no cost to taxpayers.