Budget approval may hinge on ambulance issue (2/11/10)

Forums aim to convince skeptical residents

Feb. 11, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The trio of public forums in coming days will correct misconceptions about a new ambulance service included in Williston’s municipal budget, town officials say.

But the forums, coupled with meetings with neighborhood groups and opinion pieces in the Observer, also represent an extraordinary effort by officials to win support for a single — albeit controversial — line item.

At stake is the town budget, which easily passes most years but this time could hinge on convincing voters skeptical about the cost of an ambulance service or angry about not having a direct say on it. In a separate ballot item in 2007, voters rejected funding for an ambulance service.

Resident Hazel Winter said she will vote no on the budget even though she only objects to the ambulance proposal. She called it “stupid” that there won’t be a separate ballot question.

“I don’t want to turn down the whole budget,” she said. “Why penalize the entire town because of one item?”

Williston is currently served by out-of-town ambulance services, primarily St. Michael’s Rescue. First responders in Williston are dispatched when a 911 call is made, then an ambulance arrives separately and takes the patient to the hospital.

Fire Chief Ken Morton three years ago proposed a Williston-based ambulance service that he said would operate more quickly and efficiently. It would have added six new employees to serve as both firefighters and ambulance staffers. Though the service initially would have been funded by a grant, voters rejected the proposal.

Morton said the new plan is considerably scaled back. It would initially add only one employee and require one new and one used ambulance. Selling a pair of existing fire department vehicles would free up space for the new ambulances and pay for the used ambulance.

The annual price tag — including lease payments for the new ambulance, staffing and other expenses — would be $231,915, according to Morton.

He projects that the program will pay for itself through fees. Depending on the type of response, patients’ health insurers will be billed either $450 or $550 for each call. That will generate $260,360 in revenue.

It remains to be seen if voters will see that funding scenario as too good to be true. Even Selectboard members, who approved inclusion of the ambulance service in the budget, wondered if it would actually pay for itself.

The town plans to lease rather than buy the new ambulance, providing a way to opt out should the service prove too expensive. That also avoids a referendum on bond funding, which by law must be approved by voters.

Resident Michael Mauss said he doubted that ambulance revenue will offset expenses. He noted that health care reform appears to be dying in Congress and half of all Americans are projected to be uninsured in coming years. If that happens, he said, ambulance revenue will no longer cover the cost of the service.

Mauss said it may be unfair to reject all spending over a single issue but town officials invited such a scenario by putting the ambulance in the operating budget.

“If they jam it down voters’ throats, then I guess they do deserve to have the entire budget sunk over that one issue,” he said.

Selectboard mulls options

Jeff Fehrs was the only Selectboard member who opposed putting the ambulance service in the budget, arguing that voters deserved a direct say on the issue.

“They have no choice if they disagree with the ambulance service but to vote no on the budget,” he said. “And I guess that’s part of what I was objecting to.”

Selectboard member Chris Roy initially supported a separate ballot item for the service but later changed his mind. He said on Tuesday that if the proposal had been the same as the one in 2007, he too would have insisted that it be put before voters. But he said given the choice between using voter-approved bonds and or a less-risky lease, he opted for the safer approach.

Voters rarely reject municipal budgets, said Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. When they do, it’s hard to know if it was because of one issue or overall spending.

But Jeffrey said it is clear that having an Australian ballot narrows the options because — unlike traditional town meetings — specific expenditures cannot be deleted from the budget by voters.

Forums offer information

Morton said the forums over the next week are intended to present the facts about the ambulance proposal, which he thinks is poorly understood based on letters to the editor and Internet postings he’s read. He has already met with or plans to meet with residents of Williston Woods and other neighborhoods.

Mauss said he would listen with an open mind, but he is concerned the forums will offer information that is less than objective.

“My suspicion is it’s going to be a propaganda proposition,” he said.

Some residents have already made up their mind and will vote against the budget, Morton said. But he hopes the forums will reach the vast majority of undecided voters.

“If the people in the community understand this proposal, I’m confident they’ll support it,” he said. “If after that they still say no, I’m OK with that.”

Morton said one of the biggest benefits of having an ambulance service would be to eliminate “what if” questions when a patient doesn’t reach the hospital as quickly as possible because of Williston’s fragmented system. And he repeatedly emphasized that it could be done at no cost to taxpayers.

“When you can provide that service to the town and it isn’t going to cost them anything, why in God’s name wouldn’t you want to do it?” he said.

FORUM SCHEDULE

Three public forums detailing the proposal to add an ambulance service will be held at the Williston Fire Station. Here is the schedule:

Thursday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 13, 9 a.m.

Thursday, Feb. 18, 7 p.m.