At least one town is considering leaving the city of Gardiner’s emergency service in response to a proposed 38 percent hike in what the eight communities in the regional service would owe next year.

Farmingdale plans to put dueling proposals from Gardiner Ambulance Service and Delta Ambulance on the warrant at the Town Meeting scheduled for next month to give residents a chance to decide which ambulance service they want in their town, said David Sirois, chairman of the town’s select board.

Delta Ambulance, a nonprofit ambulance service in Augusta and Waterville, offered to provide emergency service to Farmingdale a year ago for no charge, but the selectmen decided to stick with Gardiner because of concerns that the quality of the service could decline and response times could increase by going with Delta. Sirois said he likes having Gardiner’s ambulance service because it’s closer than Delta and supports Gardiner’s full-time fire department, but he doesn’t know if the select board will make a recommendation for an ambulance service on the town warrant. The board typically makes recommendations on the warrant articles at the Town Meeting, scheduled for June 13.

A spokesman for Delta, which provides subsidy-free emergency services to 17 central Maine communities, according to its website, wasn’t available for comment Monday.

Farmingdale sought a proposal from Delta this year because the cost of Gardiner’s service continues to rise and towns in it are also responsible for any unpaid bills from people served within their borders, Sirois said. In the proposal Delta offered to Farmingdale last year, the town wouldn’t have to pay anything, including any unpaid bills incurred in the town.

In the current fiscal year, Farmingdale paid about $25,500 to Gardiner’s ambulance service for the base fee and unpaid bills, called uncollectables. The proposed budget from Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson calls for the town to pay about $9,600 more next year.

Nelson, who is in the process of meeting with the select boards of all the towns in the service, said he didn’t know Farmingdale was seeking a proposal from Delta Ambulance until a Kennebec Journal reporter told him Monday afternoon.

“I’m a little surprised, but if they need to explore, they need to explore,” Nelson said.

Gardiner Ambulance Service brings in revenue by billing individuals and their insurance companies for service and charging fees from the eight 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.

Nelson originally proposed a budget that would have led to an overall 83 percent increase in what the communities in the service would have to pay next year, but Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli’s proposed city budget presented to councilors last month called for the overall increase to be 11 percent. Nelson presented his reduced budget, with an overall 38 percent increase in fees charged to the communities, to representatives from the other towns at the Ambulance Advisory Board’s last meeting on May 5.

The proposed increases are so dramatic because Nelson is proposing to buy an ambulance to replace a 12-year-old ambulance in the fleet and because the ambulance budget is expected to be about $75,000 short of its revenue projections this year.

A consultant hired by Gardiner last year found problems with the city’s billing and revenue projection practices. For years, the city had been projecting overly optimistic revenues because of how the city billed patients and because the city was using the amount billed as opposed to the actual money received in projections, the consultant found. Billing changes recommended and implemented last year are expected to increase revenue by around $50,000 this fiscal year, but the original revenue projection was still too high.

Nelson has said that after next year, the ambulance service’s budget will become more predictable and consistent. But if the service loses any towns, it will cause the fees for all other communities to increase if additional cuts aren’t made.

Not only would the service lose the member fees if towns left, but it would lose 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 ambulance service.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @pdkoenig

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