MONMOUTH — Monmouth Rescue Association has announced a plan to cancel service contracts, setting up the possibility that the town will be without its own ambulance service for the first time in 34 years.

Association officials say a drop in the number of calls and uncompetitive pay have made it difficult to attract paramedics and emergency medical technicians. Those staffing shortages have made the service impossible to maintain. Association board members notified Town Manager Curtis Lunt of the decision on Tuesday and selectmen discussed it on Wednesday. The last day of the contract is Jan. 13, 2014. The association also is canceling its only other contract, with the town of Wales, at the same time.

The service also has mutual aid agreements with Winthrop Ambulance Service and Lewiston-based United Ambulance Service, and it provides mutual aid coverage to Leeds for Turner Rescue.

“It was a very hard decision to come to,” the association’s Chief of Service Chris Duke told selectmen during Wednesday’s meeting. “We just have periods when there is nobody around. It’s not responsible to keep the contract.”

The association has provided ambulance service to the town since the private nonprofit was founded in 1979. Without full-time employees, that service typically has relied on certified responders who live in the area to answer calls for help.

The association handled about 500 calls each year, but there has been about a 10 percent decrease in overall volume and the calls tend to come in spurts rather than in a consistent pattern, Duke said. Because of that instability, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a roster of certified responders who can answer those calls quickly. Association President Aaron Chase said the rescue has lost money in each of the last 10 years and recently implemented across-the-board pay cuts. Recruiting employees has been hard in light of the association’s uncertain future and pay scale, which is about 20 percent below the market average.

“Under the current structure, it’s just not feasible for us to continue,” Chase said. “To continue, we need more people. To get more people, we need to present a more stable platform.”

Selectmen received the news with disappointment. Selectman Doug Ludewig said if the service is shut down, it will never come back. He said any other service is going to pale in comparison when it comes to response times and quality.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Ludewig, who helped found the service in 1979. “There’s no replacing what we have now. Anything we try to replace it with is going to be poorer.”

Selectmen asked Lunt to scramble to gather proposals from neighboring ambulance services, such as Winthrop, United and Gardiner Fire and Rescue, to see how much it would cost to contract for service. The board asked the services to include options for standard service and for permanently parking an ambulance at the Monmouth Rescue Association’s building, next to the Town Office. Ludewig said he wouldn’t vote to approve any service that did not include an ambulance based in the town.

“I demand we have the same kind of response that Monmouth Rescue has provided for years,” Ludewig said.

Selectmen also plan to explore options that would allow a Monmouth-based rescue service to continue. It costs about $325,000 to run the service, Chase said. The association takes in about $200,000 from patients. Monmouth budgeted about $50,000 for the 2013-14 fiscal year and Wales pays about $10,000 per year. Chase said Monmouth would have to double its contribution to begin to bridge the budget gap, and even that would cover only staffing, without addressing money for equipment and other expenses.

“That’s assuming we could find qualified people to hire,” Duke said. “Right now we’re not able to do that.”

He said the town should consider taking over operation of the service if it wants to keep it in Monmouth.

“I think if you want to keep a local service in town, it has to come from the municipal level,” Duke said.

It’s unclear how much such a service would cost.

“Everyone becomes a municipal employee, and the cost goes up exponentially,” Selectman Harold Jones said.

He said the town can provide quality rescue service without running its own service.

“It can be done and it can done effectively,” Jones said. “People might want a Cadillac but decide they can only afford the Chevrolet.”

The voters will have the final say on whether the town contracts with an outside agency for regular service, contracts to have an ambulance parked in town or opts to continue with a town-based service. Ludewig said residents have been willing to pay more for a town-owned police department and probably will want to continue local ambulance service, even if it proves to be more costly.

“I think they’d want to keep the service and do what’s necessary, ” Ludewig said.

Resident Hugh LeMaster, who is a member of the town’s Fire Department and once was a Monmouth Rescue members, said having a local ambulance service has saved lives. The association managed to keep a roster of town residents who could answer the calls for help, but those who worked for the rescue have known for years that it eventually would have to come under town control and have a roster of permanent employees, LeMaster said.

“Here we are,” LeMaster said. “We’re at the point something has got to be done. They’ve been pulling a rabbit out of a hat for a long time.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642ccrosby@centralmaine.com