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Brattleboro EMS takeover, projected to save money, drains expected surplus

Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, New Hampshire, is helping the Brattleboro Fire Department take over the town’s emergency medical services through a one-year transition contract. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Six months after municipal government leaders said this town could take over emergency medical services with two ambulances and save $200,000, the local selectboard has approved the lease of a third vehicle that will drain the last dollars of a projected surplus.

The board voted last April with little public notice or debate to swap a $285,600 annual contact with Rescue, Inc. — Windham County’s largest and longest-serving EMS provider — with a $75,000 contract with Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, New Hampshire, which is helping the Brattleboro Fire Department cover calls through a one-year transition plan.

Former Town Manager Octavian “Yoshi” Manale had promised the savings — as well as up to $700,000 in annual insurance revenue he projected before resigning after only five months on the job — would “be invested in quality-of-life improvements for the people of Brattleboro.”

But since the start of the switch in July, the town has lost $48,020 in dispatch fees from Rescue and spent an estimated $52,000 for EMS staff raises, $27,000 in training costs for paramedics, $16,980 for medical consulting, $13,721 more than originally budgeted for a feasibility study and $6,000 in training costs for advanced emergency medical technicians, according to municipal numbers.

Added together, those figures have eaten up nearly $164,000 of the $200,000 projected savings.

On Tuesday night, the board voted to spend another $37,500 for continued use of a third Golden Cross ambulance, which was needed 11 times in the first two months of a free 90-day trial.

The approval negated local leaders’ past promises of an EMS surplus and claims that the town could take over with only two vehicles compared to the six stationed at Rescue’s Brattleboro headquarters.

As Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow said April 19: “It’s our job to negotiate contracts that are best for the town.”

And fellow member Daniel Quipp added June 21: “Brattleboro having two ambulances — seems to make sense that we should be able to cover it. And we’re still coming way under the budget for ambulance services even expending that (proposed cost for a third ambulance).”

This week, however, local leaders who once talked about savings now are citing other concerns.

“It was never all about the money,” board member Tim Wessel said Tuesday.

Municipal officials questioned what expenditures the public should consider extra (they don’t believe the $16,980 for medical consulting, for example, should be reported as additional spending, even though that specific amount wasn’t budgeted) and whether financial concerns were even relevant when talking about emergency care.

“If the public doesn’t get all the information …” Wessel said. “I just want the whole picture to be seen.”

So do residents who have expressed appreciation for the work of both Rescue and the fire department but have questioned why local leaders pulled the plug on the nearly 60-year EMS provider before studying the ramifications on medical coverage and costs.

Despite continuing public calls, municipal government has yet to release a single document explaining the surprise switch, even when asked through the state’s official public records process.

“The law exempts from public inspection ‘records relating specifically to negotiation of contracts,’” Town Attorney Robert Fisher wrote in a statement to VTDigger.

Before the town can take over EMS coverage fully, it will have to buy vehicles and equipment to replace what it’s now borrowing from Golden Cross. Local leaders won’t know what that sum will be until a feasibility study is completed this fall. But nearby Charlemont, Massachusetts, just spent $350,000 for one new ambulance, while a Brattleboro municipal memo last spring proposed seeking “refurbished” models at $110,000 each.

The selectboard is set to decide how to proceed after it receives the results of its feasibility study as soon as next month.

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