Tri town members agree to change in management

— File photo by Tim Johnson

Selectmen from West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah last week agreed in principal to reconfigure the management structure of the Tri-Town ambulance service, which serves the three up-Island towns.

A seven-member ambulance committee, made up of two representatives from each town and a member of the ambulance squad, currently oversees the service. The common practice in each town is to appoint the police chief and one selectman to serve, although there is no requirement that a selectman be appointed.

During a joint meeting on Wednesday, September 14, though there was disagreement, selectmen voted to reorganize the committee to include one selectman from each town and two ex-officio members who would not be voting members: the ambulance chief and the director of emergency services from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

The Tri-Town ambulance service is currently undergoing a major transition, among other changes shifting from a volunteer force to professional-based service — largely to meet state guidelines requiring paramedics to be on duty around the clock.

The ambulance committee has experienced some turmoil during this transitional phase. Last June, the committee hired Robert Bellinger to serve as ambulance chief, but Mr. Bellinger unexpectedly stepped down less than six months later.

In June the Chilmark selectmen voted to appoint Paul “Zeke” Wilkins as the new chief of the Tri-Town ambulance service, despite strong objections from Dr. Jeffrey Zack, the director of emergency services at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Dr. Zack raised concerns that Mr. Wilkins did not have the necessary qualifications for the job, but said Mr. Wilkins could receive the necessary training at a financial cost. Dr. Zack said he would ultimately support whatever decision the committee made.

On Wednesday selectmen from the three towns took several straw votes to change the structure of the ambulance committee, although those changes still need approval from the existing ambulance committee and selectmen from the three towns.

Selectmen agreed that first-time selectmen cannot serve on the committee, and the chairmanship should rotate on an annual basis. They also agreed that the committee will evaluate the ambulance chief, who will in turn evaluate the deputy chief.

The selectmen did not all agree on the structure of the new committee.

Aquinnah selectman Spencer Booker said he wanted the fire chiefs to serve on the committee. West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said he favored something closer to the current structure, which includes the three police chiefs.

“I know the police chiefs wanted out, and I understand why; because they are law enforcement,” Mr. Booker said. “But the fire chiefs are more fire and rescue, and the ambulance tends to fall underneath that umbrella anyway.”

Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman said he liked the idea of requiring one selectman from each town to serve on the ambulance committee. “In my experience we rarely heard about Tri-Town, and when we did it was either from the fire chief or police chief,” Mr. Newman said.

“I think if the selectmen were more involved we would have more of a pulse of what is happening. I don’t see selectmen micromanaging, but instead seeing the policies are in place and the budgets are fair and equitable,” he added.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said more members didn’t necessarily mean a better committee. “I think an argument could be made that it’s too big. I think a smaller group meeting less often will have less inclination to try and micromanage,” he said.

The selectmen also took a straw vote to change the language requiring a unanimous vote to approve the budget, instead agreeing that a majority vote would suffice. They also agreed to require the committee to submit its budget for the next fiscal year by November 30 and approve it by December 31.

Selectmen appeared to agree the assessment formula for the ambulance should be changed, but did not come to a clear consensus as to how. Currently the costs for running the service and the revenues are divided evenly among the three towns.

The assessment formula has been a continuing bone of contention in Aquinnah, where town leaders have complained that the town bears an equal burden but does not generate as many calls for service as its more populous neighbors.

Mr. Knabel presented a draft municipal agreement that that presented eight options for dividing up costs, which included splitting the operational costs based on the number of runs and splitting the costs based on miles driven.

Mr. Newman said his board supports changing the assessment.

“For a small town like ours, that has a very minimal budget compared to Chilmark and West Tisbury, it’s hard for us meet these payments. I just think in terms of being equitable we should pay something closer to our share [of runs],” Mr. Newman said.

Although the panel stopped short of endorsing one of the eight scenarios laid out by Mr. Knabel, there was a general consensus a new assessment was warranted. Selectmen agreed to ask Mr. Wilkins to determine the fixed costs of operating the ambulance service, regardless of the number of runs or miles driven.

Selectmen asked Mr. Wilkins to present his findings at their next joint meeting on October 20.

Selectmen reflected on the complicated nature of having one ambulance service for three towns. “You have to decide whether all the costs are fixed, or if they can be divided to fixed and variable . . . then I think you can have a legitimate discussion about who should pay more,” Mr. Knabel said.