Missed ambulance calls stir Shirley debate

SHIRLEY — The newest selectman used a routine vote on annual appointments Monday night to address an issue of concern: missed ambulance calls.

During a recent stop at the fire station, he checked the ambulance sheet posted on the wall and noticed there were no names on the on-call roster for the month of June, he said. “There’s not one day covered.”

Town Administrator Patrice Garvin responded, “We do have coverage, they’re just not in the station.”

But Cappucci pressed the issue. “It’s a priority,” he said, and the backup plan Garvin worked out with Ambulance Director Mike Detillion and Fire Chief Dennis Levesque hasn’t been fully implemented yet.

“We owe it to residents” to make sure there’s an ambulance crew ready to respond when a call comes in, Cappucci said. He said people have commented on the situation and that one resident told him “the tones went out but nobody came.”

Chairman Bob Prescott sketched the problem. “A year ago we had a system breakdown… 75 tone-outs,” he said, at which point Detillion and Levesque alerted the selectmen, who directed Garvin to sit down with them to work out a strategy.

He tied the outcome of those talks to an ongoing municipal restructuring plan aimed at improving the way the town does business and which was freeing up funds for reallocation where they were needed most, public safety. “This is how we wanted to spend it,” he said.

A system of stipends was established, aimed at beefing up the on-call list during crucial periods such as nights and weekends.

“The tone outs went way down, from 75 to about six,” Prescott said.

“We couldn’t afford to man the station 24/7,” Garvin explained.

“We had a rough number of about $150,000” to work with, Prescott added. “That gives us two people in the station,” covering weekends on a rotating schedule. “That will close the gap,” he said.

But Cappucci said he wants to see the plan fully implemented as soon as possible so no ambulance call goes unanswered. “I’d like to bring it up at the fall Town Meeting,” he said.

The other selectmen, however, favored waiting for “new growth” to provide more money in the budget rather than attempting to infuse funds one year that might not be available the next. “We might be able to do it when the solar money comes in,” Prescott said, referencing anticipated lease and tax revenue from solar facilities in town.

“We’re 80 percent improved and headed in the right direction,” Selectman Kendra Dumont commented. She agreed with Garvin that fall might be too soon to put an ambulance budget on the warrant and that it’s better to wait until Annual Town Meeting next year.

Currently, the Ambulance Department is not part of the budget but is funded through an enterprise fund, Garvin pointed out. “It’s supposed to pay for itself.”

Asked if there was any money in the fund now she said not yet.

The good news is that there’s money set aside in the Capital Stabilization Fund to buy a new ambulance, an anticipated outlay of $190,000, Garvin said. As for closing the coverage gap, “we need to find recurring revenue” to pay for it,” she said.

Cappucci said he gets it but he’s still worried about waiting, with people’s lives at risk. “I feel something needs to be done now,” he said.

In other business, selectmen by a unanimous vote appointed a new town accountant. Donna Allard is a certified government accountant who has worked in Hubbardston and Westminster and has been a treasurer, too. Her appointment is subject to negotiating a contract with her for the non-union position next week.