EAST MONTPELIER – The need to address a looming personnel problem with the East Montpelier ambulance service in future years emerged at a Select Board meeting Monday to finalize the budget and warning for Town Meeting Day.

Select Board members heard that it is increasingly difficult to find volunteer ambulance crew members because of the training and time involved, and because of the much higher frequency of ambulance calls versus fire calls. The problems are likely to lead to full-time staffing of the ambulance service, the Select Board heard.

Select boards in both East Montpelier and Calais, which share budget costs for fire and ambulance service are considering moving to a fully funded staffing for the ambulance service, according to an entry in the East Montpelier annual report.

“The budget reflects a joint decision by your Select Board and the Calais Select Board to move toward fully funding 24/7, 2-person staffing for the EMFD ambulance service,” the report says. “It’s been clear for the past couple of years that dependence on volunteer staffing was an unsustainable proposition.

“The expectations on volunteer personnel, both in terms of training and time, are enormous, leading to a downward spiral of fewer volunteers trying to meet constantly increasing demands. The current, FY 2020, budget allows for 60-65% paid staffing. The intent is to add around 10% staffing capacity in each of the next two years and then fully fund in FY 2023,” the report added.

“We’re looking at ramped-up expenses, astronomically,” said Seth Gardner, board chairman at Monday’s meeting.

“But I think we’re talking apples and oranges because I think the ambulance service will always be a problem,” said Bruce Johnson, town and zoning administrator. The fire department, probably, would be fine, I think. But too many voluntary ambulance departments have failed.”

Board member Gene Troia agreed, saying East Montpelier was not alone, with many Vermont towns facing difficulties finding volunteer ambulance crew members to respond to calls for service.

“Almost every call, if it’s during the day, nobody responds,” Troia said.

Speaking after the meeting, Johnson again referred to the “apples and oranges” comparison when considering call-service demands and budget needs for fire versus ambulance services.

“But it’s the same entity, so when we’re talking about EMFD (East Montpelier Fire Department), it’s the same group,” Johnson said. “So, it makes the conversation confusing.

“We have 30 volunteer firefighters that will show up on a dime. We do not have 30 paramedics. It’s just a different world, and the reality is you get 500 ambulance calls and 10 fire calls. This is a systemic problem, it’s not just us and it’s a challenge and the Legislature is looking at it too,” he added.

The Select Board voted to approve the fiscal year 2020-21 budgets for fire and ambulance services.

The fire department budget will rise from $186,656 to $194,694, an increase of 8,038 or 4 .3%

The ambulance department budget will rise from $334,420 to $357,359, an increase of $22,939 or 6.85%.

Troia voted against approving the EMFD budgets because of his concern about the future “unsustainable” increase in costs for East Montpelier residents but Troia supported the overall FY2020-21 budget.

The overall budget will see a municipal property tax rate increase of 4.8% in fiscal year 2020-21 that is due, in part, to an 18.3% increase in health care costs next year.

It would require an increase of 3 cents on the property tax rate to raise $1.975 million to maintain town services, an increase of $100,559 or 5.37% in tax revenue on the current year. It would mean a tax bill increase of $60 a year on a home worth $200,000.

The FY20-21 general fund budget totals $2.443 million, an increase of $81,949, or 3.47% of which nearly $21,000 is for health insurance cost increases for the town.

Voted articles and funding requests for FY2020-21 total $103,396 and include: $42,022 for the Kellogg-Hubbard Library; $9,000 for the Montpelier Senior Activity Center; $8,333 for Green Mountain Transit; $7,500 for the Cross Vermont Trail Association; and $6,000 for Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice.

The Select Board rejected a request for $25,000 from the Friends of Coburn Pond to preserve the pond in perpetuity, once a wetlands project on the site is complete.

A proposal by Select Board member Carl Etnier to include an article on whether the town should be able to exercise local control over a tax-and-regulate cannabis market failed for lack of support.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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