Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson is trying to find $135,000 worth of cuts and revenue increases in next year’s ambulance service budget while preventing potentially steep fee increases for the eight communities that are partners in the regional service.

The advisory board of representatives from the communities met earlier this week to discuss the budget, which almost would double the amount the towns and the city pay if the requests from Nelson are approved.

The emergency and rescue service is funded by billing individuals and their insurance companies for service and through fees charged to the communities — Chelsea, Dresden, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Litchfield, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner. The totals paid by the communities this year ranged from about $5,000 to $25,000, besides Gardiner, which paid about $74,000, according to a budget overview provided by Gardiner City Manger Scott Morelli.

The Gardiner city budget proposed last week by Morelli calls for the increases to the ambulance service communities to be 11 percent, not 86 percent as originally proposed by Nelson. To accomplish that, Nelson needs to close the $135,000 gap. Nelson said he’ll present several options to the Ambulance Advisory Board at its next meeting May 5.

“We really do consider the partner communities, and we want to keep that relationship,” Nelson said. “I think we provide an excellent service, and we certainly don’t want them looking anywhere else.”

Some of the communities have previously considered switching to a private ambulance provider, which has offered free service to some area communities in the past. If that happened, the service would lose both the member fees and the revenue from serving patients in those areas. The consultant’s report warned that if the ambulance service becomes unsustainable, “it will be the death knell” of the city’s full-time Fire Department, which is largely funded through the rescue operation.

Jane Hubert, chairwoman of the Pittston Board of Selectmen, said even though the town previously had considered leaving the service because of fluctuating unpaid bills the town was responsible for, she’s satisfied with it now.

Mark Roberts, the chairman of the Randolph Board of Selectmen, said more research is needed to find out the effect of any increases. The town doesn’t finalize its budget until July, so it hasn’t allocated money for next year’s budget yet, he said.

Part of the reason for the potentially large increase is that the ambulance service budget is expected to be about $75,000 short of its revenue projections this year because of overly optimistic revenue projections.

The city hired a consultant last spring to find out why revenue in the ambulance fund had been falling short of projections by as much as $100,000 the last several years. The consultant found that there were issues with how the city bills patients and the city was using the amount billed as opposed to the actual money received in projections. The billing changes implemented last year are expected to increase revenue by around $50,000 this fiscal year, but the original projection was still too high.

Nelson said another reason for the larger budget is the service needs a new ambulance, totaling around $200,000 which includes a new power lift and other upgrades. The 13-year-old ambulance the new vehicle would replace has engine and body problems, he said.

Besides raising the fees charged to the communities, Nelson said he might propose raising some of the rates the ambulance service bills patients.

Representatives from the other communities on the advisory board were understanding of the situation, Nelson said. Even though this next year will be difficult to get through, budgets in the future will be more consistent, he said.

“We want to maintain the level of services we’re maintaining right now to those partner communities, and it’s going to take a joint effort to make it through,” Nelson said. “Like I said, I think once we’re over this year, each year it’ll get easier to predict.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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