Tri-Town ambulance changes considered, postponed

At a joint meeting February 3, selectmen from Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury discussed several significant changes to the Tri-Town ambulance committee but made none.

The West Tisbury selectmen called the meeting after several Tri-Town ambulance squad members asked selectmen to change the structure of the 35-year-old ambulance service.

A seven-member committee oversees the ambulance service. The committee includes three up-Island police chiefs, one selectman from each town, and a squad representative. The volunteer committee oversees operations, deals with personnel issues, and signs off on disbursements.

The Tri-Town structure includes an ambulance chief. Some ambulance squad members would like the committee to focus more on policy making and budget issues, and let the ambulance chief handle all the day-to-day operations.

But, the ambulance service is currently without a chief.

In June, the committee hired Robert Bellinger to serve as ambulance chief, but Mr. Bellinger unexpectedly stepped down in November, though he agreed to stay on as deputy chief while assisting in the search for a full-time chief.

Meanwhile, the ambulance committee has proposed a major shift toward more of a professional service that calls for adding four new positions, two at 40 hours a week and two at 30 hours. Doing so could increase the ambulance budget by more than 60 percent.

At the meeting last week, several committee members supported shifting more responsibilities to a new ambulance chief.

“An ambulance chief, just as with a police chief or fire chief, could answer directly to the selectmen, there would be no middle man or committee. Right now, I consider this committee to be a middle man,” West Tisbury police Chief Dan Rossi said. “This whole committee started when Tri-Town started. But it’s come to the point that we are trying to have a professional service. If we have a chief who is a department head, then I personally feel it would be easier it he only answered to the selectmen.”

Aquinnah police Chief Rhandi Belain agreed the committee needs reshaping, but he said any changes should be put off until after the new ambulance chief is hired. “Do I think it should happen at some point? Yes I do. But I personally don’t think right now is a good time to do it,” he said. “We are trying to bring some structure to the ambulance service. Once the structure is in place, it will be easier. I think a majority of the committee feels the same way.”

Tri-Town squad representative Bruce Haynes said most paramedics agree the committee should do less. “The whole point is to set up a structure so the [ambulance] chief and deputy chief can run it together, something Tri-Town has never had,” he said. “The day-to-day should not be handled by us as a committee.”

Former West Tisbury selectman Diane Powers suggested getting rid of the committee outright and instead having the three towns sign an agreement that would establish an autonomous ambulance department.

“Having a chief in place makes it more of a department and not something run by a committee . . . we could have an inter-municipal agreement and not even have a committee. The chief would answer to the selectmen in each of the three towns,” she said.

Chilmark police Chief Brian Cioffi agreed that restructuring is warranted. “The committee is there for an advisory capacity, that’s the nuts and bolts of the committee. But the committee right now isn’t operating that way. The committee has been approving bills, making sure things are done on time, they are keeping the ball rolling,” he said. “It’s being run by some people who aren’t in the ambulance world, so to say; they are in the law-enforcement world. The reality is the ambulance world is generally run by fire departments. There are very few towns where the ambulance is run by the police department.”

Committee members said they hope to place an advertisement seeking candidates for the chief position in the Island newspapers this week, with an eye toward hiring someone by the start of the busy summer season.

About the budget

Toward the end of the meeting, Chilmark selectman and ambulance committee member Jonathan Mayhew broached the looming issue of the proposed ambulance budget increase, which has already raised some eyebrows in the three towns.

Mr. Mayhew suggested two alternative budgets, discussed by the ambulance committee, that would reduce the proposed increase to either 39.9 percent or 25.7 percent.

But several other committee members said those alternatives hadn’t been vetted and were not ready for review. “We discussed those options, but we did not approve it,” Mr. Haynes said. “I don’t believe that is on the table right now.”

“We have heard there are some boards that don’t want to pay their full share. That also comes into play when we are trying to decide a budget, too,” Chief Cioffi said.

Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose was the only person to respond. She took issue with the current assessment formula for the ambulance force, which splits the cost evenly between the three towns.

“Chilmark has three times as many ambulance calls as Aquinnah, and West Tisbury can have nine times as many, but we are still paying the same amount. That doesn’t seem fair. It’s a huge amount more,” she said. “We are basically subsidizing Chilmark and West Tisbury by paying three times as much; sometimes six times as much or nine times as much. It’s a lot easier for Chilmark and West Tisbury to pay that much more, but for us, it’s an override. That’s something we have to work out,” she added.