Round-the-clock EMS coverage tops Harpswell Town Meeting warrant
HARPSWELL — A proposal to continue around-the-clock paramedic services that began earlier this year, and another to create a new marine resources position, are two of the major issues voters will face at Town Meeting.
When the meeting begins March 15 at 10 a.m., voters will have to consider a series of warrant articles that deal with proposed ordinance changes or requested spending appropriations that will constitute this year's municipal budget.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane estimated this year's proposed $4.48 million municipal budget will raise property taxes by around 3.8 percent to nearly $6 per $1,000 of assessed value. That means a taxpayer with a property valued at $200,000 would see an increase of $44 or less this year, she said.
The proposal to continue around-the-clock paramedic services from Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick is one of the biggest drivers in the budget's 4.6 percent hike. There are also a handful of other appropriation requests that are either new or increases from last year.
"I think our budget is in good shape, and it continues our situation in which we've either had no tax increases or small tax increases," Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said, noting that the town still has a low property tax rate in relation to many communities across the state.
When the town held a special Town Meeting last December to consider increasing paramedic services from 12 hours a day, five days a week, to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, effective from January to March, the proposal was unanimously passed with no debate.
Now the town will have to consider a warrant article to continue those 24/7 paramedic services for a full year, which would begin in April and end in March 2015.
It will be a costly expenditure.
While expanding to 24/7 paramedic services from January to March only cost the town an extra $35,000, and was paid from the town's unassigned fund balance, a full year of services will cost almost $239,000, nearly double the amount spent by the town last year.
All three of the town's volunteer fire chiefs have said the extra cost will be worth it – even if it means raising taxes – because it will help serve the town's aging community and compliment the town's volunteer emergency medical technicians, who aren't able to respond to emergencies as quickly as full-time professionals.
"Put yourself in the position of the person who is calling (about an emergency). What's your life worth?," Harpswell Neck Fire Chief Frank Hilton said, adding that as more people in town get older, the more likely they will have health problems that demand faster response from a professional who is able to administer more on-site treatment than volunteer EMTs.
"It's the idea that these paramedics' grade level is a little above EMT's," Hilton said. They have the capability of administering drugs and other things we are not permitted to do with our licenses."
The town's median age increased from 45 in 2000 to 53 in 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. In the same period, the percentage of residents 45 years or older increased by nearly 22 percent.
In a presentation that was expected to be made at Thursday's Board of Selectmen meeting, an analysis of last year's paramedic services from Mid Coast Hospital showed that a hired paramedic was able to respond to emergencies nearly four minutes faster on average than volunteer EMTs.
"They're often on scene before we're able to get the ambulance rolling out of the station," Orrs and Bailey Islands Fire Chief Ed Blaine said, adding that a matter of minutes can make all the difference.
The analysis of paramedic services from last year also showed that the hired paramedic was able to respond to fewer than half of the 381 emergency calls because of limited coverage time. A high frequency of calls in 2013 were made on nights and weekends, which weren't covered by a hired paramedic until 24/7 coverage was enacted at the beginning of this year.
A new expenditure voters will have to consider will be contracting for a marine resources expert, who will focus on resource management and shellfish conservation.
The $30,000 position will compliment the two marine wardens contracted from the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, which will cost the town just over $185,000 this year, a slight decrease from 2013.
The proposed position comes at a time when shellfish harvesters have been dealing with a softshell clam population that is declining at an alarming rate; Brunswick's most recent clam flat survey found that its softshell clam population has reached an all-time low from within the past 20 years.
"I think it points to a fairly fundamental need that is different from (the marine wardens') law-enforcement focus," Multer said.
Marine experts have blamed the invasive green crab for the softshell clam population decline, which is why the town is also seeking an additional $8,000 this year for shellfish conservation activities. The additional money will be used to buy traps, netting and related gear to control the green crab population.
Other new expense requests include $15,000 to help fund a $70,000 playground for Harpswell Community School; $12,000 to hire a consultant who will study the town's salaries and wages in comparison with other communities, and a new $10,000 reserve for land acquisition and improvements
Proposed funding increases include an extra $8,750 for Harpswell Community Broadcasting, the nonprofit that provides the town's TV station, and an extra $4,300 for Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. The increase for the library will be determined by a secret ballot.
Voters will also have to consider an amendment to the town's subdivision ordinance that will allow more flexibility for developers and property owners, and will allow conservation land to be more incorporated throughout subdivided lots.
Town Meeting is at Harpswell Community School, 308 Harpswell Islands Road. Polls will open for the secret balloting at 9 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.