MOUNT DESERT — Officials of the town and the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service will discuss the idea of the town taking over responsibility for emergency medical services for the town of Mount Desert.
Ambulance service President Douglass “Scamp” Gray and Service Chief Basil Mahaney proposed the transfer in a Feb. 8 letter to Town Manager Durlin Lunt and suggested the transfer occur by Jan. 1, 2023.
The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to direct Lunt, Fire Chief Mike Bender and Police Chief Jim Willis to begin discussing the proposal with the ambulance service.
Gray told the Islander that the decision to seek the transfer of EMS responsibilities to the town was due in large part to the increasing difficulty in finding enough volunteers and paying those who have to be hired.
“We still have some good people, but we don’t have the number of volunteers we used to have,” he said. “So, we now hire people from Bar Harbor and all over to fill shifts, and we’re struggling to fill those shifts.”
The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service is an independent nonprofit organization. It is governed by an elected board of directors and staffed by a combination of volunteers and per-diem care providers including licensed EMTs, advanced EMTs and paramedics.
“We’ve got a few key people who really make our organization run, and if we should lose any one of them, we would be struggling,” Gray said.
“We feel we still give the townspeople a good service, and we don’t want that to go downhill. And we can’t just one day throw the keys to the town and say, ‘It’s all yours.’ There’s got to be a plan.”
The ambulance service officials said in their letter to Lunt that, until a transfer of EMS services takes place, “The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service will continue to provide the town of Mount Desert, the Cranberry Isles and our mutual aid partners with the high-quality EMS transport and care they have enjoyed since 1938.”
Mahaney said the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service has considered a number of possible options including partnering with another ambulance service in the area.
“But the town of Mount Desert has the best resources and is in the best position to provide long-term, advanced life support ambulance service for the community,” he said.
When the ambulance service transports someone to the hospital, it sends them a bill, which usually is covered by the patient’s insurance.
“But we don’t go on a huge number of runs, so we don’t collect enough money just from that to survive,” Gray said.
Mahaney told the selectmen that the ambulance service typically responds to only about 300 calls a year.
“This year, with the pandemic, you would think the call volume would be higher, but it was actually a lot lower,” he said. “During the height of the pandemic nobody really wanted to go to the hospital, so people were very hesitant to call the ambulance. That really affected revenue.”
The ambulance service’s largest source of income is donations.
“Businesses and local people, especially the summer people, have all supported us well over the years,” Gray said. “That’s what has always kept us going.”
But now, he said, the cost of providing the service is outstripping revenue.
Mahaney said that, with the shortage of volunteers, “We’ve had to start paying people, and our payroll has increased to over $300,000 this year. That will be two people on duty 24/7.”
“Right now, we’re not financially strapped,” Gray said. “But it used to be we were making money and we had a little nest egg. Now, that is reversed; we’re spending more money than we’re taking in, so that nest egg is getting whittled down, and eventually it won’t be there.”
According to the IRS form 990 that the ambulance service filed for 2019, the organization received $170,268 in donations, $84,990 for billed services and $25,500 in investment income for total revenues of $280,758. But expenses totaled $312,956, resulting in a deficit of $32,198.
Since 2019, the ambulance service has received $10,000 a year from the town.
“We could ask the town for a lot of money, but that’s only part of our problem,” Gray said. “We’re struggling to keep up with administration and everything. There are a lot of rules and regulations and forms you have to continually fill out. It’s a lot more involved than it used to be.
“Hopefully, the town will take this over and the townspeople will never recognize the difference, except that it will be coming out of the tax base, which we have been able to avoid all these years,” Gray said.
The decision to ask the town to take over the ambulance service was “kind of a hard one to make,” he said.
“I’m going into my 50th year with the ambulance service, so I’ve seen a lot. It’s kind of bittersweet for me.”