PUTNEY -- Representatives from Rescue Inc. came before the Selectboard and about a dozen residents Wednesday to try to convince the town not to change its ambulance service.
The Selectboard has approved a budget that includes enough funding to switch its ambulance service to Golden Cross of Claremont, N.H., after working with Rescue Inc. for almost 50 years. Putney residents will be asked to approve that budget as is, or amend the budget to retain Rescue Inc., at Town Meeting.
There is an approximately $22,000 difference between the two services. Golden Cross has agreed to serve Putney for $36,447 while Rescue Inc. says it will cost the town $58,768 for ambulance service in 2015.
The Selectboard called the special pre-Town Meeting Wednesday to allow residents a chance to learn more about the issue, and also to give the two ambulance services a platform to explain their charges and services. At the beginning of the meeting Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard said she did not contact Golden Cross in time, and a representative from that company was not at the meeting.
Stoddard said when she put the budget together this year she looked for savings anywhere she could. The town negotiated with its auditor, who has been working with the town for 13 years, and made changes to how it buys trucks and how it produces its town report.
"This was not just a problem with service. This is just how I do a budget," Stoddard said. "Competition drives the price down and I guess I was surprised it was $22,000 less."
Selectboard Chairman Josh Laughlin said the town had considered changing its ambulance service over the years, also pointing out that Putney is one of the only towns in Rescue's network that actually has an option in choosing a service.
Signing a contract with Golden Cross would save the town about 40 percent on what it spends on ambulance service, and in these very tough economic times Laughlin said it was hard to ignore that fact.
"The decision to do anything different than what we have done in the past is not in any way based on service we have received from Rescue or any disappointment in Rescue's service," Selectboard Chairman Josh Laughlin said. "We have always had excellent service from Rescue and it is strictly as financial decision."
Drew Hazelton, interim Chief of Operations at Rescue, said Rescue's annual assessment was so much more because the organization has a lot of senior members and maintains a well-trained staff with a full, updated fleet of vehicles.
Hazelton told the board that Rescue was financially healthy. He said Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard expressed concern with the level of information available about the non-profit organization. At Thursday's meeting Hazelton presented a financial statement which he said showed that the organization was in sound fiscal shape.
Laughlin asked Hazelton what Rescue was going to do to curb costs.
Hazelton said he understood the position Putney, and all towns are in, and he said the Rescue board was very concerned with the organization's long range stability.
"Our board of directors identified our finances as a concern back in the spring," he said. "We started in the summer looking at ways to increase our revenue and to become more efficient. We're actively working on that."
Hazelton argued that Putney was one of the original towns that started Rescue Inc. 47 years ago, and he said the staff and service is all locally sourced.
"We have a history with the people here. We know a lot of the patients," Hazelton said. "Our staff is familiar with them and our staff is familiar with the hospitals."
He said Rescue has a full staff, with fully trained paramedics, that provides experienced service and works well with area fire departments.
He also pointed out that as a non-profit compact, Rescue was governed by the towns, who he said had input in decisions that are made within the organization. Rescue offers a program that allows low-income people to pay their ambulance bills, and another subscription service that gives residents a choice in what ambulance service they use.
Hazelton said part of the challenge this year in Putney has been due to Putney's inability to fill its chair on the Rescue board. The Rescue board is made of town representatives and Hazelton said when the board was finalizing the budget this year there were no Putney residents there to advocate for the town. It was not clear what a Putney representative would have been able to do, but Hazelton said at least the issue would not have been a surprise to Rescue when the town decided that it was going to look for an alternative ambulance service.
Stoddard also said the communication between Rescue and the town could have been better, though Hazelton made it clear that the town could not have negotiated after the annual budget was set.
Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard said he met with both companies and clocked the response times. Goddard said when you looked at each organization, and what they provided, the services were comparable.
"If I thought for a moment that citizens' lives would be in danger, or jeopardized by another ambulance service, then they wouldn't be here," said Goddard. "You're looking at an ALS transport service. When you take out the passion, when you take out the politics, when you take out all of that peripheral stuff, and you take a look at it, there're are a lot of apples being compared to other apples."
Putney resident Randi Ziter, former owner of The Putney Inn, said she has called Rescue many times through the years and has always received prompt and professional service.
But resident Leonard Howard said Rescue's service was not the issue.
"It's concerning to have that big of difference between two services," Howard said. "If it was a couple of bucks I would say stay with Rescue Inc. ... The fact is that people pay taxes in this town and it comes down to dollars and cents. No one is questioning the service. Our Selectboard and our town manager are being fiscally responsible by doing what they're doing."
Putney's town meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 4, at 10 a.m. at Putney Central School.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.