Funding for Hermon (ME) Ambulance Service Was Once Controversial—Now, It’s Become Commonplace

Residents supported spending tax dollars to support it but were irked by councilors' closed-door sessions over long-term funding.

By Judy Harrison

Bangor Daily News, Maine

(MCT)

Three years ago, the Hermon Volunteer Rescue and First Aid Squad was operating at a deficit and the Town Council was reluctant to bail out the nonprofit ambulance service. Residents supported spending tax dollars to support it but were irked by councilors’ closed-door sessions over long-term funding.

Last year and this year, however, the growing community west of Bangor has included $210,000 in its annual budget each year without much discussion or controversy following a contentious public confrontation in 2019.

That amount assures there are two people on duty at the squad’s facility, located at 262 Billings Road, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The volunteers are paid minimum wage for the time they are on duty and they respond to emergencies.

On top of the allotment of taxpayer money, income from billing insurance companies, MaineCare and Medicare brings in $180,000 to $190,000 a year, according to Councilor Stephen Watson, 70, who has volunteered with the squad for about 35 of the 44 years he’s lived in Hermon.

The town fully funds a separate fire department housed in the town’s public safety building at 333 Billings Road. The department budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, is $400,382, slightly more than the annual budget for the rescue service.

The town’s 2020 property tax rate is $11.99 per $1,000 of assessed property value, slightly more than half the rate in neighboring Bangor.

Watson, who is on the squad’s board of directors, decided to climb into an ambulance when the squad had a staffing shortage in the 1980s.

“All the council members joined up and my wife joined up,” he said. “It just stuck.”

The nonprofit was founded in 1968, according to its website. The first few years it operated out of a local barn and used a retrofitted hearse as an ambulance. Over the next 15 years, the squad worked out of the fire station and the town’s historic one-room schoolhouse.

About 30 years ago, the service constructed its first building at its current location. It had two bays, some office space, a bedroom, training room, restroom and kitchen facilities. The building was expanded in 2014 when a $350,000 addition doubled its size, adding two more bays, office space, a second bedroom and a training room.

In its early days, volunteers ran the service on donations solicited from residents.

“For the first 25 years, we never billed an insurance company,” Watson said. “About 25 years ago, we started billing insurance companies and that sustained us.”

Discussions over whether to merge the nonprofit ambulance service with the fire department have taken place periodically over the past three decades. The most recent one was in 2011, when the council voted to incorporate emergency medical services under the fire department.

But after residents made it clear they favored keeping the independent ambulance service, councilors and squad members hammered out their differences with the help of a facilitator. During the annual town meeting in June 2011, residents voted to remove contingency funding for an ambulance service within the fire department.

The squad also contracted with Etna and Stetson to provide services in those communities, which meant it did not need financial support from Hermon. In recent years, however, those towns have signed contracts with other ambulance services.

“That cut the call volume in half and our income,” Watson said.

Annual calls for service fell from 888 in 2014 to 497 in 2019, according to figures provided by Watson. There were 594 calls in 2020. The reimbursement rate from MaineCare and Medicare does not cover the ambulance service’s cost per call.

Three years ago, the service was $300,000 in debt due to the mortgage for the addition to its building and the purchase of a new ambulance. Watson said earlier this month that the ambulance has been paid off and $130,000 is still owed on the mortgage, which will be paid off in seven years.

Watson, who has been on and off the town council since joining the squad, said that he is allowed to vote on proposed funding for the rescue service. State law would prohibit a councilor from voting on funding an entity if he or she owned 10 percent or more of the entity.

Currently, there are 37 people on the squad’s roster, Watson said. Most work full-time jobs, many for hospitals or other ambulance services. One of the things that has changed over the years is the number of residents who volunteer.

“Years ago, 70 percent of our volunteers lived in town,” Watson said. “Now about 30 percent live in Hermon.”

Robin Basford, 48, of Etna has worked at the squad for a dozen years. She became a first responder when her children were younger and she needed to coordinate her schedule with her husband’s schedule. Her regular job is driving a school bus in Newport, she said.

That can get monotonous, but every ambulance call is different, Basford said.

“This has become my extended family,” she said. “Plus, I enjoy helping people and being there for them in their time of need.”

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