At a meeting between WASI, the selectboards of the two towns they serve, and DVR Monday night, the two rescue services agreed to hammer out a deal for the takeover. DVR offered a draft agreement for service to Whitingham and Halifax.
Whitingham town attorney Bob Fisher kicked off the discussion, explaining that the issues under consideration included the future of WASI as a corporation and, if it dissolves, how its assets will be allocated. “We need to get up to speed as far as what obligations WASI has, its assets, and personnel,” he said.
“This is a tough time for small (ambulance) services,” said Jeff Spencer, an attorney working with the two ambulance services. In addition to his work representing Vermont ambulance services as an attorney, Spencer said he has also been an emergency medical technician on his local service since he was 18. “You do have a licensure issue upcoming with the state,” he said, referring to the expiration of WASI’s conditional license at the end of June. “There’s not a whole lot of time before WASI loses its license.” The actual dissolution of WASI as a corporation, he said, could take anywhere from six months to a year.
Other issues, Spencer said, included the disposition of equipment, including WASI’s ambulance, and funds currently held by the Whitingham service. The equipment, Spencer suggested, could be turned over to Deerfield Valley Rescue before the actual dissolution of WASI’s corporation. “Issues like the cash are going to take a while. But there’s no way WASI can benefit from the money, it has to go to a 501(c)(3) entity. If anyone was harboring any thought that it could be used for benefit, it can’t.”
Whitingham Fire Chief Stanley Janovsky noted that, under WASI’s bylaws, all assets of the ambulance service revert to the Whitingham Firefighters Association. “But that doesn’t address what happens before the dissolution,” Spencer said, suggesting that WASI could divest itself of its ambulance and other equipment before dissolution.
Halifax Selectboard Chair Edee Edwards asked about DVR’s intentions regarding the former WASI ambulance. “Our interest here is to get ambulance service, we don’t want an ambulance. Will it remain in this area?”
DVR member Merrill Mundell said the ambulance would have to be renumbered and renamed as a DVR ambulance, but that no formal plans had been made for the potential acquisition. “Our vision hasn’t been fully developed, but other than the new numbers and letters, that would be the end of it for now,” he said. “It would be kept here.”
DVR administrator Heidi Taylor said the most important thing for ongoing service would be that each town maintain a first responder agency. Halifax currently has a first responder service, Whitingham would have to create a new service. “That’s a key component, because response times could be longer.”
Edwards expressed concern about increased response times. “I would feel better if I understood why there’s an expectation of longer response times,” she said. “I would hope that you could get through this and maintain or even increase volunteerism.”
DVR board member Betty Hillman said that it would depend on the volunteer pool that exists after the transition. “If there were a lot of volunteers in Whitingham, it wouldn’t affect the response time,” she agreed. “But if we’re relying on people coming from Wilmington and Dover, then the response time will be longer. Right now, our member base is mostly people who live farther away.”
Whitingham board member Karl Twitchell noted that one of the problems that led to WASI’s current situation is a lack of volunteers. A larger service could ease the burden on all volunteers, and help encourage more people to join. “Right now there’s a handful of volunteers, and they’re trying to make a living at the same time,” he said. “There will be hiccups, but we need a bigger pool. We’ve got to start calling it ‘the valley’ and not Whitingham or Halifax.”
Edwards said the Halifax board was also interested in making sure that any plan the towns and services adopt is a long-term solution. “That doesn’t mean there can’t be change, but it would be nice to get to a point where we feel we have a longer-term solution. I’m glad to see the draft agreement in writing, but I think response time is something we’re going to need to find ways to address.”
Most of the officials in the room appeared to be in agreement about their goals, but they struggled to define steps forward. Some envisioned maintaining a status quo until the day of WASI’s final dissolution, and wondered about service in the period between their loss of licensure and the dissolution of the corporation. “What’s throwing us is that, under WASI’s bylaws, everything has to go to the Whitingham Firefighters Association,” said Janovsky. “So our understanding is that it comes to us, and we hand it over to DVR.”
“Ambulance coverage for the community is the number one bottom line,” said Twitchell. “If DVR needs the equipment before dissolution, there’s nothing to prevent (WASI) from turning it over directly to DVR.”
Mundell said there were other issues that would have to be discussed, including the finances to establish service in Whitingham. Specifically, he noted that Whitingham and Halifax appropriated tax dollars to partially fund the service, and there was revenue from subscriptions. “If DVR is to take over the coverage, we would expect that, on a pro-rata basis, that money would be transferred to us to cover the same things WASI covers.”
Spencer reiterated that WASI couldn’t keep the money for itself.
A representative from the WASI board said that the board had already determined that it would turn over WASI’s subscription list and subscriptions to DVR, “under the understanding that they would be honored.”
Whitingham resident Wayne Corse asked about the disposition of a Certificate of Deposit of about $30,000 in WASI’s coffers. “I’ve been going to the meetings, and I have some real concerns about how the pot of cash is going to get distributed,” he said. “As a contributor, I don’t want to hear about $5,000 severance packages. I’ve heard a lot of talk, and now nobody wants to talk about it tonight. Turn it over to DVR or the Whitingham Firefighters Association. Let’s have some transparency.”
WASI member Skip Tefft said he felt like WASI was “pushed into a corner” on the dissolution. “I think WASI needs to go back and make the decision for ourselves,” he said.
“I can understand that,” said Corse, “but I’ve been at the meetings, and I found out the state wanted to give WASI a year provisional license, and WASI talked it down to 90 days. Then WASI came to the selectboard and said we need $500,000 and we need to hire eight full-time people.”
As no agreements were within reach at the meeting, Taylor volunteered to organize a meeting between DVR, WASI, and one member from each of the other groups involved, to address the turnover of the ambulance and financial issues next Monday evening. WASI member Larry Kingman asked that minutes of any meetings be circulated to all members. “So we’re all on the same page at these meetings.”