ATHOL - The contentious issues of the local emergency squad's finances, response times and personnel matters were aired Sunday in a special town board meeting.
Since January, the Thurman Town Board has been withholding its annual payment of $33,800 to the Thurman Emergency Squad, pending an audit of its books that would explain to the town board's satisfaction that the squad needs the funds in light of the squad's existing fund balance.
Supervisor Lawrence "Red" Pitkin said at the meeting Sunday that the emergency squad still had $42,000 in its checking account balance at the end of November.
"Our concern is there's a lot of money sitting there and we didn't see calls being responded to," he said.
The squad's cash balance might be justified, but in December the directors discharged the treasurer, Suzie Baker who could explain the accounts. The squad's board also prompted the sheriff's department to visit her home several months ago and threaten her with arrest if she did not turn over the books, which she immediately did. Some have criticized the action as groundless.
Last month, Baker and her son Dexter Baker, were booted out of the squad, which the Bakers contend was unfounded and conducted without a proper vote.
At Sunday's meeting, squad captain George McKinney said that the squad presently has no treasurer. The audit for the town board was due last month, but when February was up and the squad failed to produce a written audit, the town board extended the deadline to the end of March, when Pitkin called the meeting to discuss matters with the squad. It was apparent, judging from complaints from the crowded audience, that the people of Thurman expected the audit to be produced. There still was no audit.
McKinney blamed for the delay of the audit on it being too difficult.
"The auditor is going through and trying to figure out where all the checks were spent on what," he said.
Townspeople in the meeting rebutted McKinney's remark. Jean Coulard, the past treasurer, spoke up emphatically, "Any auditor who can't work from her books has got a problem. I trained her."
Those who've seen Baker's books have said that each expense is carefully categorized and tallied neatly, and subtotals are penned for each month.
Town officials have questioned more than merely the accumulated fund balance and the delayed audit. Pitkin said that the number of responses by Thurman's ambulance had recently dropped dramatically, from 9 of 20 received during the last three months of 2009 to only 3 of 24 from January through March.
Ordinarily, the county dispatchers radio squads in nearby towns if the hometown ambulance crew doesn't respond within six minutes. Apparently, the county dispatch system had stopped relying on the Thurman squad to respond to emergency calls in the town, officials said.
But McKinney said that nothing had changed - the squad was continuing its established routine of "mutual aid" with Warrensburg.
However, Chris Norton, Assistant county EMS Coordinator said that all calls from Thurman are sent to Warrensburg Emergency Squad to be dispatched immediately.
Thurman's decline in responses correlates to the squad's board suspending then expelling the Bakers. This mother-and-son team, residing near the EMS building, had responded quickly to almost every call, townspeople said.
Grievances against the squad for removing the treasurer and her son were expressed by people present at the meeting. For instance, Bob Russell, a squad member, said from the audience, "I could always count on their being there."
McKinney expressed interest in acquiring paid staffers. But he added there was no present plan for staff to come to sleep at the squad house. There is no television, he said.
"I was looking if we have the money to put in a room," he said. "We don't have the facilities to support volunteers."
He said that Newcomb has only 50 to 70 calls a year, but has a $170,000 budget.
"The only way we'll get people there is a paid staff," he said.
Pitkin disputed the idea.
"I don't see how Thurman can afford it," he said.
McKinney said that daytime calls presented a big problem, considering that people were busy working.
McKinney said that EMS squads all over the state are facing ever more restrictive training requirements.
"The state is shoving everything down our throats," he said. Pitkin sympathized, noting he looked into training to become an EMT, and it required three hours per week for six months.
McKinney proposed adding an EMS staffer to the town payroll, with the town assigning duties during the many hours not responding to emergencies.
"He could clean up cemeteries," McKinney said.
Pitkin, however, expressed reservations about paid staffing.
"You're asking me to pay for drivers, an ambulance, and our people are getting billed?" he said.
A discussion ensued about "soft" billing for services, a practice when patients and their insurance companies are billed, but the charges are not pursued with individuals if the person who is served by the ambulance cannot afford it.
The Warrensburg emergency squad captain Steve Emerson said that even with payments for ambulance service the squad finances were "very hard." He said that Medicaid reimburses only $70 and Medicare $270 per call. Pitkin said that the most soft billing would bring in annually would be $42,000, not enough to underwrite paid daytime staff.
Jill Nelson, who had ALS certification and was Thurman squad's past president until she discontinued her membership, said billing for services would displace donations.
"If we go to a paid squad, once we start billing, we can kiss our $6,000 donations goodbye," she said.
Various other options for the squad were discussed.
Norton suggested the Thurman squad being absorbed into the Warrensburg agency, making Thurman a substation. He said such an arrangement would boost oversight and efficiency, while allowing immediate adoption of Warrensburg's practice of billing.
The issue of Thurman's Advanced Life Support certification being at risk, due to its recent low transport figures and slow response rate, was discussed.
Councilman James Ligon asked Norton about the possibility that the county was thinking of combining all its EMS agencies. Norton said discussions of the concept have been aired, and said such a decision was up to the regional Mountain Lakes EMS Council.
Emerson said that that Warrensburg taking over Thurman's calls would not be his first choice. He encouraged the squad and town to work out their issues.
McKinney said that he did not want to see the dissolution of the Thurman squad.
Pitkin, McKinney, Emerson, and Norton agreed to meet in several weeks to work out the issues.