NG Budget Committee Review Hits Pause as Selectmen Tackle Fire and Rescue Budget  

A budget-review season that was already challenging has been complicated by questions about the New Gloucester Fire and Rescue FY20 budget, raised by the Board of Selectmen on February 4.  At issue, whether the data and assumptions underlying the preliminary $490,000 NGFR budget were appropriate, and whether the current level of emergency response service and staffing is adequate.  While its analysis continues, the Board on February 8 set a placeholder amount of $700,000 for Fire and Rescue so that the Budget Committee could begin its advisory budget review.  The NGFR budget for the current budget year was $380,000.

Driving the budget calendar: an April 1 deadline for the Board to sign off on the town warrant, with a final proposed budget, to go to voters at town meeting in May.  Given the urgency of its questions, on February 6 the Board created a working group comprising Selectmen, Town Manager Carrie Castonguay, and representatives from NGFR.  The group has since met twice weekly to consider coverage and staffing options and finalize figures.  It next meets on Friday March 8 at 11 am and Tuesday March 12 at 10 am at the Community Building.  Awaiting final proposed budget numbers, the Budget Committee postponed its February meetings.   It is slated to reconvene on March 13 at 7 pm, and hold a public hearing on March 20 at 7 pm, both at the Meetinghouse.

The preliminary Fire and Rescue budget first came into sharp focus at the Selectmen’s February 4 budget workshop.  For more than an hour the Board examined in detail the $490,000 Fire and Rescue budget lines, combined this year in a new “Public Safety” category.  Among other matters, Board members questioned the assumptions behind the hourly rates used for projections, the scope and purpose of officers’ stipends, and whether the estimates of rescue call and responder numbers were low.

Beyond concerns with data and dollars, the Board grappled with pressing issues of public safety, in particular nighttime emergency coverage.  As Mary Rich, deputy chief of EMS, explained to the Board, Maine EMS protocols require that a paramedic-level responder be summoned on certain calls, such as for reports of chest pain, not a basic- or intermediate-level EMT.  The town does not have paramedics onsite or on regular call between 6 pm and 6 am, however.  When a paramedic is unavailable, an “intercept” is called for from a neighboring town, potentially entailing critical delay and added fees.  Rich noted that Gray will begin charging $300 per intercept starting this month; intercepts by Gray have been free.

Without around-the-clock paramedics and only two on staff, Board Chair Stephen Libby expressed concern that the town is not providing the level of emergency ambulance service voters expected.  “To be fair to the citizens, we need to have a plan to get there,” said Libby.  Deputy chief Rich agreed, saying, “I’m just blown away by hearing from folks in town.  They think we have 24/7 coverage, and we don’t.”  Libby noted, “Our town and the demand is growing faster than we can find volunteers and our current volunteers can be trained to what we need.”  Interim fire chief Ryan Mitchell said that NGFR membership “continues to dwindle,” and “right now we’re not being able to fill trucks sometimes.”

One emergency coverage option under discussion is United Ambulance in Lewiston-Auburn.  At the February 4 workshop, Town Manager Castonguay shared preliminary quotes from United: $322,000 for 6 am to 6 pm coverage by a paramedic in a jump truck; $394,200 for 24/7 coverage.  At its February 6 workshop, the Board decided that the new fire/rescue working group should explore all available options, including contracting with United, as it also considers updated call and wage data from Castonguay and the departments.

In her comments to the Budget Committee on the 16th, Castonguay described a challenging budget, with increased costs and reduced revenues.  As a result, the preliminary budget includes what she called “a hefty amount” from the town’s undesignated fund balance – some $500,000.  Until the budget is finalized and capital expenditures decided, however, the full impact of the municipal budget on the tax rate can’t be determined.

Reported by Joanne Cole; edited by NGX