Department hopes to train its own to become paramedics
BAR HARBOR—The Town Council and Warrant Committee held a joint budget session Tuesday night and listened to presentations from the town’s fire chief, code enforcement officer and police chief as well as the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce before discussing potential increases to parking fees and estimating cruise ship fees for fiscal year 2024, which begins in July.
The meeting is one of several scheduled to discuss and refine the town’s budget, which is approved by voters at the town meeting in June. Both the council and the committee make recommendations about the budget. Former Town Manager Kevin Sutherland had made recommendations about the budget prior to his departure last week.
“It’s been a challenging few days,” Council Chair Valerie Peacock said before the presentations started. She thanked department heads and staff for “stepping up and in” after Sutherland’s departure and added, “There is actually a lot to love about living in this town despite what you read in the news.”
Fire Chief Matt Bartlett, Deputy Chief John Lennon, and Assistant Chief Basil Mahaney presented the fire department’s budget.
Bartlett stressed that his budget is all about what is best for the community. There are 18 full-time employees and 15 call firefighters. There were five new positions put on last year, one is John Lennon’s, which is a shared position with Mount Desert.
“Revamping the structure has allowed us to have more management within the department,” Bartlett said.
The fire department has asked for four new positions this year so that each shift will no longer be minimally staffed.
They are proposing a 6% increase across the board for all the ambulance fees that they have, Bartlett said, adding that it has been years since they have increased those fees. Medicare pays for about 60% of those bills after the ambulance goes on a run, but Medicare does not pay in full. It will only pay a certain amount and the rest is written off, which makes the real revenue stream closer to $300,000, Bartlett said.
Bartlett said that they are seeing significant increases in the costs in the capital improvement program and it’s due to the inflationary costs. Vendors are telling them to expect a 10-15% increase each year. To put themselves in the position to purchase new fire trucks, they have to prepare for that. However, they’ve learned that Tanker One can get an additional five years from a $60,000 refurbishment, which makes it a 2033 replacement rather than a $200,000 2028 replacement. This impacts the capital improvement budget.
For just a maintenance of effort for the fire department there is a roughly 8.3% increase.
“Almost our entire expense is within wages,” Bartlett said. Those are driven by union contracts.
“We do get roughly $50,000 back for the shared position, which drops the budget down to an 8.3%,” increase Bartlett said. Without that money from Mount Desert for Lennon’s position, the increase is just over 11%.
Service enhancements, such as hiring four additional employees, would make a bigger increase.
The public safety building has anticipated costs for the upcoming fiscal year that equal a 17% increase in cost for the maintenance of effort, which is the cost of inflation and utility costs, Bartlett said.
“The town can’t afford 17% increases across the board,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said.
Councilor Matthew Hochman said he hoped when Higgins Pit, the town’s energy project, goes on line the electricity budget line will go down significantly.
Service Enhancements for the Fire Department
The fire department put in for four positions, which is part of the goal of further collaboration with the town of Mount Desert, Bartlett said. Those positions would allow them to staff Somesville and provide better coverage for Town Hill. He said they realize that it’s a tough year to ask for extra positions with a potential school bond also on the table.
The Town Hill area currently relies on the department coming from downtown, which is where the public safety building is.
Bartlett asked the group where they wanted to go with the collaboration with Mount Desert. They currently have a minimum staffing of four per shift. A Staffing for Adequate Emergency Response grant, if awarded, would cover the positions for three years. After that the town would have to decide how to pay for those employees.
If staffed, it would allow the department to place shifts in Somesville, which is in the Town of Mount Desert. There would be three firefighters stationed there per shift: two from MDFD, one from BHFD. The group positioned in Somesville would answer calls in Mt. Desert and Bar Harbor. Mt Desert is currently running operations out of Somesville while rebuilding its station in Northeast Harbor.
Bartlett said that the department’s call volume, a majority of it, is still in downtown Bar Harbor. Though it’s a tourist community with fluctuating business and population, staffing levels would be the same for the entire year. With Somesville staffing the response time to Town Hill would decrease to 5 to 10 minutes rather than the current 15-20 minutes.
Friedmann said that collaborating with Mount Desert is attractive, but possibly should be in the model of the joined police departments. He likes the long-term planning, but he doesn’t think the budget increases are sustainable. Part of the aspect of a small rural community is learning how to work together on multiple levels, he said, and this is especially true because he doesn’t think the tax payers can handle this level of increases. He said last year they approved a major increase for fire staffing. He said he doesn’t see how they can do it two years in a row.
Fire Department Training Service Enhancement
When hiring new personnel they could not find paramedics, Bartlett said. They were not applying. “We need to train our own.”
The cost of that training is $36,000. The higher level of medical care on scene makes a difference, sometimes between life and death.
“We’re getting thin with paramedics,” he said.
Councilor Erin Cough asked about training Bar Harbor firefighters and then losing the paramedics to other towns. Bartlett said that there is a prorated payback now in the contracts if that happens. They have lost people before because they haven’t been able to offer them training.
“It kind of works both ways,” he said.
Warrant Committee member Robert Chaplin congratulated Bartlett and said that if they needed more support for training, they should do it. Hochman agreed that this wasn’t the place in the budget to skimp.
Dry Hydrant Repair Request
A final request was for $28,000 in the operating budget this upcoming fiscal year (transitioning to capital improvement next year) for dry hydrant repair.
Mahaney explained that dry hydrants are basically a straw that the department puts into a pond. “We have to park the fire truck and actually suck the water out,” he said.
Many of these dry hydrants are 20 years old or more and no longer functioning properly. If you’ve ever tried to suck through a straw with a hole in it, it doesn’t go very well, he said.
The seals are breaking, ponds are drying, and sediment is increasing which can clog systems. Ice plays havoc.
There is some ability to bypass the dry hydrants and they can sometimes suck water from the pond directly. Sometimes they might have to chainsaw through ice to do so. Seven dry hydrants have been identified as needing replacements or significant repair. There hasn’t historically been money set aside for that. The money they are asking for would get this started. Faulty dry hydrants add time and delays to emergency response. There are 15 dry hydrants in town. Some are private. Some are put in by the town but on private land. Some are in the park.
The dry hydrant on Russell Farm Road had to be capped off a couple of years ago because they couldn’t use it any longer.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
This is the first of a series of articles stemming from last night’s budget meeting. It was all too much for one article. Apologies. Plus, I have to get some paying work done.
Editor’s note: I was a call firefighter in Bar Harbor for a very brief time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the titles of John Lennon and Basil Mahaney reversed. It should have been Deputy Chief John Lennon, and Assistant Chief Basil Mahaney. Thanks to both of them for not minding about the error, but I still apologize!
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