Rick Sieberg, chief of Gardiner Fire Department and Ambulance Service, is seen Thursday at the Gardiner Fire and Rescue station. Sieberg recently proposed a plan to pay down more than $900,000 the ambulance service has accumulated in debts owed and to smooth out billing for participating towns. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — To pay down more than $900,000 in uncollected bills and smooth out billing in the future, Gardiner Ambulance is proposing a new plan for its member communities.

The move, if approved by officials in Gardiner and the towns served by the ambulance service, will clear the old debt the service is owed over the next few years and make budgeting for the service more predictable.

And it comes as the communities served by Gardiner Ambulance —including Gardiner — are starting to build their spending plans for the upcoming budget year.

“While we have the service, we are also a purchaser of the service,” Andrew Carlton, Gardiner’s city manager, said. “If you avoid unnecessary peaks and valleys for your budgeting, you’ll keep things a little more level and you won’t see the spikes and then drops for our budgeting purposes.”

As an enterprise fund, the Gardiner Ambulance Service is not supported by taxpayer dollars. Instead, it pays for itself through billing those who use its service, and through fees charged to member communities that are split evenly between population and call volume. Gardiner firefighters, who are also either paramedics or emergency medical technicians, staff the service, and their pay is subsidized by ambulance revenue.

It serves about 27,000 people in Gardiner, Farmingdale, Litchfield, Pittston Randolph, Richmond, West Gardiner and half of Chelsea.


Rick Sieberg, Gardiner’s fire chief and head of the ambulance service, offered this plan to Gardiner officials at the Jan. 24 City Council meeting. The proposal has also been explained to the member communities, and Gardiner officials are expected to vote on the proposal at the Feb. 7 City Council meeting.

Sieberg said the outstanding debt is the result of a years-long accumulation of people using the ambulance service who can’t or don’t pay their bills for whatever reason. Each community is responsible for paying the uncollected amounts where the calls are generated.

Gardiner’s recent audit had flagged Gardiner’s share of the uncollected debt, about $300,000, for attention. Gardiner’s share of the debt is larger than its neighbors’ because it has a larger population and more calls for service.

The debt for all the communities started accumulating six or seven years ago, Sieberg said, when the service opted to bill only for six months of service each year, instead of an entire year. The concern was that the costs at the time would drive member communities to find another service, and without that support, Gardiner Ambulance could not be sustained. The move was intended to be only temporary, but the practice never ended.

Carlton said at about that same time, state-shared revenue to cities and towns was reduced, putting pressure on local budgets.

Returning from a call, one of Gardiner’s ambulances, Rescue 2, left, backs into the station as Rescue 3 pulls out to respond to another call Thursday at the Gardiner Fire and Rescue station. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The interests of individual communities are represented via the Ambulance Advisory Board.


At-large City Councilor Russell Greenleaf has served on the board as a Gardiner representative for years before being elected to the city’s governing body.

“Overwhelmingly, the towns want to see this go away,” Greenleaf said during Sieberg’s presentation at the Jan. 24 City Council meeting. “It was no hesitation. They want us to figure out a way to get rid of this old debt. They are also very much in favor of moving forward not having this debt.”

To make the plan work, the ambulance service would take the amount of outstanding debt and freeze it so that no more debt would accumulate. Communities would be given the option to pay off that amount over periods ranging from three to eight years.

Greenleaf said town representatives said they want to pay it off in sooner than eight years.

“The reality is, there’s a debt that needs to be taken care of, and you don’t want to have this building up again,” Greg Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen, said Thursday. “The way to take care of that is to be proactive and set some kind of standard so you’re not having this issue down the road.”

In West Gardiner, the annual Town Meeting is scheduled for April 6. This proposal will be part of town’s proposed spending plan.


“You’re always concerned about whether people will go along with what you propose,” Couture said. “It’s just like anything else. You have to take care of these debts that have been building and move forward. If they can do it better down the road, then that’s what matters.”

Moving forward, Sieberg said, the ambulance service would use a rolling four-year average of the expected uncollectable bills to determine the obligations for each community.

“We know we’re going to have about $200,000 a year in debt,” he said. “So, let’s take that and plug it into our budget ahead of time. So the ambulance service that you’re paying for will pay for the debt that’s going to come, so you’ll never be behind again.”

The other benefit of the plan allows the ambulance service to predict increases and smooth out cost spikes that some towns have experienced in recent years.

“It’s going to be one of those things where it all even out in the wash,” he said. “I think it will be a good thing for us.”

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