Franklin County Commissioners are divided over whether to consider charging a fee to NorthStar Ambulance for its use of county dispatch services ahead of a discussion with ambulance representatives Tuesday.

The private ambulance service, based in Farmington, currently responds to about two-thirds of calls to county dispatch, but doesn’t pay for use of the service that’s generating their business, according to District 1 Commissioner Terry Brann.

“Since their existence, they’ve never paid,” Brann said. “I don’t know how they’ve been getting away with it. They’re a private business, and right now the county is paying for them to run their business. In my mind it isn’t right.”

NorthStar has used the county dispatch services for years and towns in Franklin County pay to guarantee service, but the question of whether the private ambulance service should also be paying to use county dispatch only recently came up, Brann said, when he started asking questions around it.

Lee Ireland, operations manager for NorthStar Ambulance, declined to comment. The discussion between NorthStar and commissioners is scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. Tuesday during commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting.

Also on the agenda is final acceptance of the 2018-2019 county budget, a discussion on the proposed new CMP power line through Franklin County and the naming of an interim director for the dispatch center. Stan Wheeler, current director of the county dispatch center, is retiring June 30.

There is no formal proposal yet to charge NorthStar a specific fee, but just the idea has divided commissioners.

“I’m not for it because they’re really the only emergency response for Franklin County,” said District 3 Commissioner Clyde Barker. “We’ve dispatched for them for a long time and it’s worked well.”

Other emergency services such as fire departments and animal control officers that use dispatch are run by towns who pay their portion of county taxes to get dispatch services, but that’s not the case with NorthStar.

“We give this to them as a free service, but they’re a for-profit company,” said District 2 Commissioner Charlie Webster, who like Brann said it is worth exploring a new fee. “The question has been asked, ‘Why do we do this for a private company?'”

He predicted if the county were to tack on an additional charge that NorthStar would add it on to the cost already charged the towns.

Alternatively, he said the cost could be passed on to insurance providers or private payments to NorthStar.

“Assuming we agree to charge them, it would be a lot cheaper to pay us $50,000 or $60,000 than to try and re-establish their whole business somewhere else,” Webster said. “If they want to stay in business, they have to have somebody send the calls in. We’ll have to wait and see what they say. They may be able to make an argument that any charge from us will just mean a higher cost to the towns.”

Bob Devlin, county administrator in neighboring Kennebec County, said what Franklin County is looking at isn’t unusual or unreasonable.

That county currently utilizes the state’s Regional Communications Center in Augusta, which is run by the Department of Public Safety, for dispatch. Individual towns contract with the center for the dispatch services they want, whether it be for fire, ambulance or law enforcement.

Some communities run their own ambulance services or contract with neighboring towns for them, he said.

“This is a private company out there asking for a service from a government agency and the government is saying, ‘Sure, there’s a cost,'” Devlin said of NorthStar. “What the commissioners are proposing is not unheard of, a new practice or unreasonable.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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