ELLSWORTH — City councilors voted unanimously Friday morning to approve a contract to house two ambulances owned by Northern Light Medical Transport at City Hall over the winter, possibly within the next few weeks.
Councilors Dawn Hudson, Dale Hamilton, John Moore, Steve Beathem and Marc Blanchette approved the proposal. Councilors Bob Crosthwaite and Gary Fortier were absent.
The arrangement — “akin to moving in with your girlfriend to make sure it’s going to work before you get married,” as Fortier previously described it — would begin immediately and extend to July 31, 2019.
Ambulances will move into the department as soon as work can be completed, said Joe Kellner, vice president of emergency services and community programs for Northern Light. Bays already have been cleared for the trucks.
The nonprofit will pay the city $833 per month to use Fire Department facilities along with “its reasonable share” of any modifications, which are expected to come in at around $8,700.
The $833 works out to $10,000 on a yearly basis, which City Manager David Cole said was “based on the direct utility costs and what we feel is fair.”
The sum “more than covers the incremental cost of this service going in,” Cole said.
Asked what would happen if costs extended beyond what was “reasonable,” Cole replied that he was confident the expenditures will be covered by Northern Light.
“It’s their responsibility,” Cole said. “Yes, you could run into something unanticipated … but I think first and foremost everybody’s working in good faith here. You don’t have to build this out on a Cadillac basis.”
Beathem addressed opposition he’d heard circulating in the community.
“There’s been talk out there that we should not do this,” said Beathem, adding that some had wondered why the city wasn’t waiting for a private company to take over. “I don’t see any private companies knocking on our doors to do this.”
Physical changes to the Fire Department would include adding a closet and four beds, a microwave, a refrigerator, exercise floor mats and recliners. Partition curtains would be used to separate the living spaces.
The plan was put together after County Ambulance closed suddenly in August after having served the city for over 40 years.
Northern Light, which is affiliated with Northern Light Health (formerly Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), brought two ambulances down from Bangor to cover municipalities once served by County, but officials with the nonprofit say the plan was temporary and began looking for space to house trucks and staff over the winter.
Northern Light had been bringing an ambulance to Ellsworth during weekdays since the spring, but the truck had returned to Bangor in the evenings.
The organization found a possible five-year lease to house its rigs in Ellsworth for $52,000, Kellner said. But the recent loss of contracts with Gouldsboro, Winter Harbor and Surry left the nonprofit with a projected operating loss of $67,514, and administrators began searching for a way to make up the cash and stay in the region.
Kellner says this is when Northern Light administrators approached leaders in Ellsworth.
That left city officials with a choice to make. There was little indication that a private company would move in, which left several options: contract with Northern Light at a rate of $9 per capita with a 3 percent annual increase, or around $72,000 for the first year. Several other towns, including Trenton, Eastbrook and Lamoine, had done just that.
Or the city could get into the emergency services business and purchase ambulances to be housed at City Hall and staffed by city employees, as is done in Bucksport, which takes revenue from the ambulance service and puts it back into the town budget.
Then there was the public-private partnership route, similar to what Brewer has had in place (with Northern Light, formerly Capital Ambulance) since 1999.
Councilors voted to go with the latter, approving “in principle” a plan to house Northern Light ambulances in the Fire Department over the winter.
Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper helped work out the details — what physical changes will need to be made, how space will be shared — and said at a prior meeting that he was pleased with the arrangement.
Under the proposal, Northern Light will handle all billing and hold its own insurance. Ellsworth will have “no obligation” to refer patients to Northern Light-affiliated hospitals.
City officials have stressed the plan is temporary and will not affect plans for discussions around the future of emergency medical services in the city.
On Friday, Hamilton urged residents to get involved in the public workshops discussing emergency medical services (EMS).
“I think this is definitely the best approach now to ensure the citizens of Ellsworth have access to EMS,” Hamilton said. “I hope the public will get involved in the workshops that we have … the more people that come to the table with ideas the better the outcome will be in the long run.”
The first public workshop is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26, at 6 p.m. at City Hall.