Downeast EMS, formally known as the Washington County Emergency Medical Services Authority, is slowly but surely getting its house in order. When the City of Calais left the authority in 2009 to start its own emergency service, the authority found that an annual revenue shortfall of $100,000 was created by the void. The authority is now beginning to implement and plan measures that address the annual revenue shortage, including an increase to each member communities' stipend amount that will total $79,000.
At the April 24 board meeting, those present from the 19 member communities voted unanimously to support policies meant to tighten operations and the way that full‑time, part‑time and per diem employees' time is spent to reduce overtime as well as fuel transportation costs, all without reducing the coverage of service areas. As Downeast EMS Chief Bert Johnson noted, coordinating schedules is no easy task but is important for getting the payroll down by an additional $1,000 per week to meet the board's goal of no more than $16,000 per week. Currently payroll averages $17,000 per week. The $52,000 cost savings per year from tightening management of employee time is part of the strategy put forth by Johnson and Chairman Dean Preston to meet the $100,000 shortfall issue.
A non‑compete policy was adopted by unanimous vote that will restrict emergency service employees who work full‑time with benefits from working for a competing emergency service agency. Part‑time and per diem workers are not affected by the policy. Johnson pointed out that competing emergency services have non‑compete employment clauses, and Downeast EMS was being put at a disadvantage that could hurt the financial health of the organization.
Long‑term revenue sources are being explored, and the board was pleased to hear about a two‑week test pilot service in Machias that began on April 23. Preston explained that Johnson and other staff met with every organization that serves the Machias area with emergency services. "We told them that we're here to work with you, not take over. We're taking what's not being serviced." After initial concerns by agencies serving the area that Downeast EMS was trying to muscle in on their territory, Preston noted that the face‑to‑face discussions went a long way to creating an understanding about how Downeast EMS will be taking only those calls that are not first taken by the others. The need is there, Johnson reiterated, but how much of a need will be determined by the pilot project. So far feedback has been good in just that short period of time.
Lubec board representative Bill Daye noted that he has heard great feedback from the Down East Community Hospital emergency room staff, and Preston added that the Washington County Regional Communications Center has let him know the same.
To help the authority with cash‑flow, Lubec, the Unorganized Territories and Eastport all have agreed to extend payments of $32,000 each in exchange for the title to an ambulance fully equipped for each community. While the ambulance and its equipment will be leased back to the authority for the sum of $1 and the authority will maintain all equipment, the provision was to ease the concern that the payment, used to pay off a line‑of‑credit loan that the three had been signatories to in 2011, might be for naught if the authority cannot solve its financial problems and closes its doors. With the three entities in clear title to their ambulances with equipment well worth the sum, according to former Eastport Councillor Earl Small, they would then be in a position to either start their own emergency service or coordinate service with others and have an ambulance on hand immediately. Lubec will need to bring the selectmen's unanimous vote and recommendation for the purchase agreement to town meeting vote.
Communities hanging together
The Eastport City Council had held a special council meeting on the previous evening of April 23 to discuss the ambulance purchase agreement, and despite a lengthy conversation about whether the authority was up to the task of pulling itself around and whether Eastport wouldn't be better off going it alone, the council voted unanimously in favor of supporting the authority with the purchase agreement, as long as the UT and Lubec also agreed to do the same. Council Chair Robert Peacock said, "The question becomes at what point do we say, 'This just isn't making it.' We're close but we're not there yet."
Small, at one point during the meeting, said that as a businessman he felt that Eastport and Lubec should band together and create their own service. However, Small explained that if Eastport were to have its own emergency service it could expect about $165,000 in revenue and annual costs of $300,000. Peacock noted that the authority had taken on a debt load of about $800,000 when it took over operations from its predecessor. "They're now down by half. ... They've come a long way." Summing up the feelings of the council, Peacock added, "Do you hang together or hang separately?"
The feeling at the authority's board meeting was to hang together, and members were upbeat about the strategies being implemented. Daye noted that the Lubec selectmen voted unanimously in favor of the $32,000 purchase but also went one step further in proving their ability to provide leadership in tight financial times. It voted to commit an additional $70,000 over an as yet unspecified timeline if the authority pursues an additional strategy of paying off the outstanding debt referred to by Peacock. That strategy, which would apportion the debt among the member communities according to service size and length of membership along with other factors, will be taken up at future meetings.
The authority meets on the last Tuesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Meddybemps Community Center. The public is welcome to attend.