Caribou mayor dissolves controversial committee to investigate ambulance finances

3 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — A city council committee to investigate the finances of the ambulance department was dissolved after less than a month in response to intense pushback from a group of residents questioning the committee’s intentions. 

Originally formed by Councilor Doug Morrell in May, the objective of the Ambulance Transfer Committee was to investigate the finances of the Caribou ambulance department and to locate places, if any, where the budget could be more efficient. While it included “transfer” in the name, that would only be one aspect of the committee’s larger audit.

“If you’re operating an ambulance service for your own community … you do the very best you can, in my opinion as an elected [councilor], to make sure you’re doing it as streamlined as [you] can, the most cost effective you can, and what that bottom line costs the taxpayers is what it costs the taxpayers to operate that department and have an excellent service in Caribou,” Morrell said.

But a group of residents, especially vocal on the Facebook group “Caribou Citizens Outreach,” opposed the committee voraciously, fearing that the investigation would lead directly to the defunding or dissolution of the department. 

Following a public response that Mayor Jody Smith described as more intense than he had yet seen during his time as mayor, he moved to abolish the committee at a June 14 council meeting. Smith said the move was temporary, until he received a clear directive from the council and the group discussed how to incorporate resident input.

The committee’s investigation was based on increasing annual deficits in the joint fire and ambulance department — the two have been attached in the budget since 2015. A report provided by City Manager Dennis Marker shows that since 2012, costs have remained relatively stagnant or risen, while revenues have fallen from $2.1 million to $1.4 million in 2018 and 2019 — 2020 showed an increase back to $1.68 million.

While the financial struggles of ambulance departments statewide are front page news, the fears that led to the downfall of the investigative committee were based in no small part on the group’s makeup: Morrell, councilors Thomas Ayer, Louella Willey and Mark Goughan, as well as Hugh Kirkpatrick, a former councilor who sat with the committee as a resident adviser. 

Morrell, Kirkpatrick, Ayer and Goughan were members of a previous city council, which had looked into the Caribou ambulance department’s finances in 2019 and 2020 — a project that led to Caribou raising its rates to its coverage communities. 

Even though the Ambulance Transfer Committee had no deciding power on the department’s future, residents still feared that the investigation would not be a fair one because of the beliefs expressed by those members during their earlier time on the council.

One moment that resurfaced on the “Citizens Outreach” page came from a January 2020 meeting, when then-mayor Goughan said, “My personal belief? We ought to get out of the ambulance service,” to which Morrell responded “Amen.” 

That clip was taken out of context from the middle of a long discussion about rate increases for coverage towns — Goughan followed up immediately with, “but we want to be good neighbors, we want to do it right.” Morrell said that when he saluted Goughan’s statement, he was responding to the idea of getting out of covering municipalities other than Caribou, due to the strain on taxpayers involved, rather than expressing support for ending ambulance services altogether.

Morrell said he reached out to the committee members he was interested in recruiting — Goughan and Ayer in particular — based on their proficiency with numbers, not based on their past statements about the ambulance department. He said he was willing to do whatever was best based on the outcome of their fiscal survey — even if it meant growing the department to increase call capacity.

But some residents still didn’t believe the group could do a fair analysis. 

“Anybody can skew numbers,” Cuppy Johndro, a Caribou resident and former EMT, said. “There really should be people from both sides sitting down, discussing it.” 

These fears were not assuaged by the May 27 meeting of the committee. One question from an attending resident revealed that Kirkpatrick, in calculating the tax burden per call of the ambulance department, had taken the aggregated ambulance and fire department costs, but only divided by the number of ambulance runs. This made the ambulance’s financial burden appear larger than it was.

Kirkpatrick said he did this because there were far fewer fire calls each year compared to ambulance runs — an answer that did not completely satisfy the audience.

Calls for involvement by residents and representatives of the fire and ambulance department following the meeting went unheeded. Even after the committee was abolished, Morrell said he would not consider working with anyone else, and would not entertain allowing representatives from the ambulance department or members of the public on the committee. 

This despite the fact that Kirkpatrick is a member of the general public. Morrell said Kirkpatrick was involved because of his experience with the subject: “It’s not about his opinion, it’s about what he’s done for work and his ableness with numbers.”

To this, residents bristled: “That’s one hell of a message you’re sending there,”Johndro said. “How did [Kirkpatrick] get on that committee and no other citizens?”

Throughout its short life, and despite numerous assurances to the contrary, the Ambulance Transfer Committee could not shake the accusation that it had set out to do away with Caribou ambulance service.

The tension snapped in the minutes after Smith abolished the ambulance committee on June 14, when Ayer made an emotional defense of his motivations. 

“If we got rid of fire and ambulance, my son would not be here on this earth today,” Ayer said. “Maybe you folks ought to think about that next time. None of you ever asked me. There’s no way I would ever get rid of fire and ambulance because they saved my son’s life.” 

At the end of this sentence, he pounded the table with his fist in time with his words.

Meanwhile, Morrell swore he would continue his quest for answers on the ambulance’s finances, either as a part of a re-formed committee, or alone, in his authority as a city councilor.  

“One way or the other, the questions have to be answered,” Morrell said at the meeting. “The hard look has to happen and you can’t hide under a rock … It’s got to be done.”

Caribou fire and ambulance chief Scott Susi is on leave, and did not respond to requests for comment. Other members of the Caribou fire department redirected questions to Susi.