HOPKINTON — A push to seek solutions to growing financial difficulties confronting the Ashaway Ambulance Association Inc. other than taxpayer funding fell short Thursday evening as residents voted overwhelmingly to approve an injection of cash into the organization in the coming fiscal year.

The Ashaway Fire District will provide the ambulance service with a total of $250,000 for operational expenses, to be distributed in accordance with the fire district’s fiscal policies with oversight from the board of directors. The injection of cash marks a $195,000 increase over the $55,000 received in the previous year and will help to counter reductions in insurance payments and ever-increasing fuel and medical equipment costs, growing operational expenses, decreasing volunteer availability and restrictive licensing requirements.

EMS Committee Chairman Michael Octeau told residents the costs are unfortunate and are likely to become part of an annual request, but countered that ideas of merging the fire and ambulance services isn’t a simple solution and is one that, while realistic, could take years to develop.

“I think (merging) is where we are going here, and we will eventually get there,” Octeau said. “Right now, it is a private organization and there is a lot of organizational pride. It is going to take some time.”

The Ashaway Fire District’s annual meeting drew a crowd compared to past years, with 64 eligible voters in attendance when the meeting started and approximately 58 eligible voters still remaining when everything concluded 100 minutes later after lengthy and at point heated discussions. In fact, there were a few heated discussions even after the meeting concluded.

Hopkinton Town Councilor Scott Bill Hirst, who said he was speaking as a resident and not on behalf of the council, sought to have the vote conducted through paper ballot, but a hand count was conducted after the motion failed.

In the end, 46 voters still moved forward in supporting the request leading to the approval, as well as approval of an $659,589, 2022-23 fiscal budget for the Ashaway Fire District. The increase will amount to an additional $37 per $100,000 of taxable property in the coming tax year for those in the fire district, officials said. Final. 

Although the measure found overwhelming support, the meeting also led to frustrations being expressed by both sides, especially as residents try to absorb the increase in a year where inflation has led many people’s expenses to skyrocket.

Hirst was among those who voiced opposition, saying the ambulance service “has a serious financial problem” that dates back a number of years now. He said Ashaway’s taxpayers are already “paying too many different organizations already” and argued that taxpayers should not be the ones to bail the ambulance service out.

“We’ve been brought through the ringer already and I feel like we are being taken advantage of,” an elderly woman who voted against it shouted after Hirst’s statements.

Hirst also questioned why the Hope Valley Ambulance Squad Inc. wasn’t having the same kind of problems, a statement that led to Octeau and other officials saying that Hope Valley and others across the state are struggling as well, even if they have not requested the same level of public funding.

In previous meetings and again Thursday night, Octeau and Ashaway Ambulance Association Treasurer Eric Perrin said the organization has managed to persevere through a variety of industry changes in the past decade. Growing expenses for training and equipment, paired with a lack of support from the state and insurance industry, have proved to be crippling for organizations.

In 2021, they said operational expenses for the association reached $260,400 with salaries for paid workers, mechanical and equipment costs, energy costs and other needs. Despite receiving $50,000 grants from the Hopkinton Town Council and Ashaway Volunteer Fire Department — the ambulance association is considered a private, nonprofit organization and operates separately from the fire company — and smaller grants from the state and State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, Perrin said the organization still found itself $33,000 short in revenues necessary to make up the difference.

Making matters worse, they said the insurance company’s restrictions on payments leave these companies fronting the bill for responses. In the previous year the association billed out more than $776,000 in services but received just $113,250.26 in overall compensation.

“Insurances like Medicare and Medicaid will only pay so much out in these cases, and it isn’t enough to manage the costs associated with our responses,” Octeau said. Based on insurance payments, he said Ashaway received an average of $365 and as little as $128 in some instances.

Ashaway resident Barbara Capalbo, a former member of the Hopkinton Town Council, expressed frustration with the costs but cautioned other voters that failure to approve the motion could have resulted in a lack of available emergency services for residents in town.

If the taxpayers weren’t going to pay the costs, she noted that the community “would still need to pay someone” or residents would be restricted to use of private ambulance services and neighboring departments, many would be unlikely to respond with any urgency due to a lack of mutual aid if there is not a local departments to share that aid with. Officials said the mutual aid agreements with neighboring agencies would be considered void if the community were to shutter its own ambulance service.

“If we don’t move forward, if we decide to vote this down then we would need services from Hope Valley or Westerly,” Capalbo said. “Someone will pay, and we will have to pay someone.”

Residents including Stephen Moffitt Jr. called for greater transparency by the organization and asked that there be considerable oversight of the ambulance service’s spending. It was something members of the board promised.

Board Chairman Michael Williams promised considerable oversight and said that the ambulance would need to go through the board in spending the money, which will provide transparency to assure the funds are being used properly.

“All monthly bills and salaries paid will be approved or not approved by our board, just as we do with any fire department bills,” Williams said.

Although approval of the funding was necessary, Capalbo urged the fire district and ambulance associations to seek alternative solutions for the future, noting it is unrealistic to expect taxpayers to continue to absorb these costs. She said the agency and fire district should be more open to a merger, something officials said they would consider as a viable long-term solution.

For now, Octeau said the funding will allow the community to continue to provide quality emergency response services for at least another year.

“It isn’t done, and we still have a lot of work to do to find solutions,” Octeau said.

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