Around 30 people, including local and regional emergency services personnel, attended the Rochester Board of Selectmen meeting on April 25 to defend the town’s public EMS service against Selectman Richard Nunes’ criticism last week of the program’s cost to the town.
Fire Chief Scott Weigel broke down the fiscal year numbers for Nunes, explaining to him why the expense to operate the EMS Department has risen in increments since it first began in fiscal year 2013.
First, said Weigel, a grant for $100,000 was available to the town that first year to help cover the cost of new equipment, leaving the town with an expense of just $58,800. Fiscal year 2014 jumped up to $95,500, and FY15 then doubled to $200,000.
As the department got busier and new full-time shifts were added to cover the demand, Weigel said a cost of $200,000 to the town is still far below the cost of employing a private ambulance service, which Nunes had earlier stated he would like the town to investigate.
Chairman Naida Parker and Selectman Brad Morse were not as enthusiastic about the notion during the last meeting, but entertained Nunes’ request nonetheless.
Weigel wanted to clarify some issues Nunes brought up, in particular Nunes’ use of the word “deficit” when it came to the EMS budget, which Nunes asserted should be self-sustaining.
“I go to Town Meeting … and my numbers are in black and white,” said Weigel. “The people of Rochester agree … to fund that amount to provide them with a service.” All the money that is returned through collections goes to offset that budget, he explained, so if a budget of $450,000 is approved, Weigel said the $250,000 in collections that comes back means the town pays $200,000 for the service. “They know exactly what it’s going to cost to run this department and they vote for it.”
“I think that’s a pretty fair amount, a pretty fair coverage,” said Weigel. “I understand the figures. If I overspend is a deficit.” Weigel said the $200,000 it costs the town to run the ambulance service is less that what it costs for trash collection one day a week.
Weigel provided Nunes with a spreadsheet for the month of February to demonstrate the number of ambulance transports and subsequent reimbursement. He said Medicare/Medicaid reimburses the town $435 per run, while the town collects anywhere from $2,100 to $2,500 from other insurances and private payers.
“But it’s not about the money; it’s about providing patient care,” said Weigel. “It’s about providing the best patient care that we can.”
Weigel put to rest Nunes’ assumption that on-call workers who respond to incidents are paid a minimum of four hours, saying they are paid only by the singular hour. The average call lasts about one hour, he said, adding that Nunes’ criticism of the department “hurt me personally.”
“And I know that you have worked very hard … to keep this on an under-20 hour-a-week basis so that we are not incurring the benefits,” said Parker, adding that he further saves the town money.
Weigel said, “This is a part-time job … and we have a great group of people. I think a couple hundred-thousand to run that service is not a lot of money.”
Weigel assured Nunes that the town would not get a private ambulance service in Rochester for less than $500,000.
“We don’t know that,” said Nunes.
“I’m telling you…” said Weigel. A quote that Marion Town Administrator Paul Dawson once sought for the same services backed Weigel’s claim.
Dr. Nataniel Vasquez, the medical director for Tobey Hospital, supported Weigel’s assertion and called Rochester EMS “top-notch quality care,” and voiced concerns that a private ambulance service would slow response time down.
The idea of an outside ambulance coming in to service Rochester, Weigel told selectmen, was a conversation that needed to end there and then.
Morse made a motion to indefinitely table the discussion, to which Nunes replied, “I’m not seconding that.” Parker seconded and the motion passed.
“Thank you for putting this system together, it’s awesome,” said Morse, eliciting loud clapping and cheers.
Also during the meeting, residents of Hiller Road took their complaints about Wellspring Farms to the selectmen after receiving no response from Building Commissioner Jim Buckles after he was asked to investigate whether the business within a residential zone had outgrown its original permit.
The therapeutic riding facility, owned by James and Holly Vogul, would require a special permit if deemed a commercial business serving above the original 30 patients per week the couple were allowed by the town.
Abutter Cathy Mendoza said the business likely exceeds $800,000 in revenue, judging by the number of patients she and other neighbors witness coming and going at the property, with neighbors alleging that buses full of patients and anywhere from 60-80 clients arrive for services every week.
Mendoza said she allegedly had financial data from the Medicare system showing that $622,000 was collected from the insurance.
The noise, traffic, and the disruptions, said Mendoza, are affecting quality of life and property values in the neighborhood.
Town Counsel Blair Bailey said Buckles was doing his best to conduct due diligence before taking action; however, he understood Mendoza’s and the neighbors’ frustration that Buckles has not responded in a timely manner to their complaint.
Aside from a cease and desist order, which Bailey clarified was highly unlikely from Buckles’ department just yet, the neighbors simply wanted someone to give Buckles a nudge to move forward with an investigation.
Bailey said he would contact Buckles and tell him that he himself would draft a response on behalf of Buckles, so long as Buckles instructs him on his decision.
“We cannot oversee zoning issues,” Morse reminded the neighbors, reigning in a debate that had gone beyond the jurisdiction of the selectmen and too in-depth for Morse’s comfort level given that the Voguls were not present.
“I just want to use my pool this summer,” said Mendoza. “I don’t think this is too much to ask … without people looking, kids screaming, weird people…”
In other matters, selectmen heard from resident Tobias Paulo who initiated a citizen’s petition to have a bylaw amendment put on the Town Meeting warrant to create a buffer zone of a quarter-mile to restrict the conversion of one-family homes into two-family homes in single-family home neighborhoods.
The procedure mandates that the zoning bylaw article be presented to the Planning Board to forward to the Board of Selectmen, which in turn refers the matter back to the Planning Board for a public hearing.
Selectmen approved the process moving forward.
The next meeting of the Rochester Board of Selectmen is scheduled for May 2 at 6:30 pm at the Rochester Town Hall.
By Jean Perry