New EMS director hopes to keep Fort Fairfield’s ambulance service amid town’s financial losses
FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Fort Fairfield officials are working to potentially keep their independent ambulance service in town, even though it has faced public scrutiny and financial loss.
In 2020, Fort Fairfield began its own ambulance service after the Presque Isle-based Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital discontinued its coverage in Fort Fairfield. Officials cited long wait times for the Presque Isle ambulance and Fort Fairfield’s aging population as reasons why the town needed its own department.
But with limited revenue and a steadily increasing budget, local taxpayers began demanding that the town council either reduce expenses or look at other coverage options.
With the recent reveal of the town’s dire financial situation, Fort Fairfield’s new Fire & EMS Chief Mike Jalbert said that he and Interim Town Manager Dan Foster are committed to finding ways to make ambulance service affordable for the town.
A recent audit, which Foster expects to be completed and published on the town’s website soon, showed that Fort Fairfield had only $199,000 in the bank and $875,000 in outstanding short-term debt as of June 30, 2022, the end of the town’s fiscal year.
On June 30, 2020, the town had $946,000 in the bank with no outstanding short-term debt. An additional $400,000 borrowed in July 2022 now places Fort Fairfield’s short-term debt at $1,275,000.
Many town residents and councilors had been critical of former manager Andrea Powers, who resigned in September amid accusations of not providing timely and accurate budget numbers.
Residents had been criticizing the town’s spending and tax hikes since a recent revaluation, the first in more than 20 years. Some residents became part of a budget advisory committee intended to help the town offset expenses. The committee later criticized what its members thought was the town council’s apparent lack of consideration for their recommendations.
Foster, who previously served as town manager for 15 years, stepped up to the role last month and stated his commitment to reducing town expenses, including that of the Fire & EMS Department.
In 2021 and 2022, the fire and EMS budget totaled $1.3 million and $1.7 million, respectively. The 2022 budget that councilors passed in June includes $250,000 in debt service, Foster said.
On Wednesday, Jalbert, who began his new position last week, told town councilors that the town’s EMS currently has “a very large supply” of unnecessary equipment that has driven up costs significantly.
For instance, the two new ambulances that the town purchased through a loan agreement in 2019 have resulted in Fort Fairfield paying yearly payments of $57,000 to Aroostook County Federal Savings and Loan. Foster said that the town is locked into a seven-year loan payment agreement with the bank and have so far completed three of the annual payments.
But he and Jalbert are hoping to sell one of the ambulances to reduce the town’s remaining annual loan payments.
“Those ambulances are beautiful pieces of equipment, but one way to reduce our debt will be to get rid of one and replace it with a cheaper version,” said Jalbert, who previously served as the town’s fire chief from 2013 to 2015.
Jalbert is also proposing that the town rid itself of at least one of two SUVs and one of two pickup trucks that Fire/EMS purchased as support vehicles, a ladder fire truck, exercise equipment and two out of four department cell phones.
To reduce salary and overtime expenses, Jalbert has recruited six volunteer EMTs and is waiting for the return of at least six more applications. Currently, the department has a full-time crew of seven people, including Jalbert.
Those expense reductions will be crucial in potentially keeping local ambulance service, Foster said, especially as revenue from the service remains limited.
Since switching from Maine Billing Service to the Massachusetts-based Comstar, the town has seen faster processing times for patient bills, with September’s revenue coming in at $28,775 and October’s at $21,800 so far. Foster projected that if those monthly revenues stay consistent, the town could see annual revenues of $320,000 to $350,000.
Foster and Jalbert have met with the Presque Isle Fire Department to compare what Fort Fairfield would pay if they dissolved their own ambulance service and contracted with Presque Isle.
That arrangement would cost $65 per patient, or $215,800 annually, an expense that they cannot afford with the town’s current financial situation.
Foster has already been in talks with the school district, the local tri-community landfill and county administration on extending due dates for bill payments, for which the town currently owes $183,000, $275,000 and $277,208, respectively.
On Wednesday, the Aroostook County Commissioners approved an extension of Fort Fairfield’s $277,208 tax bill payment to Jan. 31, 2023.
Though Jalbert said that he and Foster remain open to alternative ambulance service options, they first want to attempt reducing Fort Fairfield’s EMS expenses.
“The biggest thing now is starting with the bare minimum and working our way back up,” Jalbert said. “The current model [for the ambulance service] is not one that the town can afford.”