Members of Richmond Rescue and Essex Rescue participate in the Jericho Memorial Day parade on Monday, May 31, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A private nonprofit rescue company facing unprecedented costs is hoping member towns will foot the bill.

Essex Rescue’s fiscal year 2024 budget request reflects leaps that some are calling unsustainable.

The 50-year-old organization provides emergency medical services to residents in Essex, Essex Junction, Jericho, Underhill and Westford. This includes answering 911 calls and sending ambulances for emergencies.

“It is not about the quality of service provided, but about the rapidly increasing cost of service,” said Catherine McMains, selectboard chair in Jericho which joined participating communities expressing concern and asking for clarity via a joint letter sent to Essex Rescue this year.

The town will continue to use the services but “wishes to work collaboratively with Essex Rescue to solve the problem of unsustainable yearly increases,” she said in an email.

The rescue’s fiscal 2024 request for total municipal contributions of $542,970 represents a significant increase from 2023 ($329,100) and 2022 ($106,255), according to a budget presentation made to some of the selectboards.

“Our situation is really part of an industry-wide problem,” said Colleen Ballard, a paramedic and the executive director of Essex Rescue. “EMS has really become a staple in our health care system. We are mobile emergency rooms. Unfortunately our use is often abused (as) there is a guarantee that when you call we will come.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded challenges with increased call volumes, decreased staffing, insufficient Medicaid reimbursement and minimal revenue options. The estimated fiscal year 2024 budget request of $542,970 includes a $7.09 per resident increase — a drop in the water, Ballard said, compared with how much communities pay toward their own fire, police and emergency medical services budgets.

“For years we have charged our municipalities less than what you can buy a cup of coffee for,” she said. “Simply put, the funding support we have requested will allow Essex Rescue to meet its operational costs.”

The organization’s request of $194,000 from Essex Junction — the municipality that uses the greatest portion of Rescue services — represents about 1.5% of the city’s budget. City Council president Andrew Brown said the body has discussed the cost and is planning to include it in its budget presented to voters.

Data presented by Essex Rescue indicates that 44% of the rescue’s call volume in 2021 came from Essex Junction, followed by 43% in Essex, 7% in Jericho, 5% Underhill and 1% Westford.

Town officials have indicated they’re satisfied with Rescue’s level of service but concerned about the rapidly increasing cost, according to the towns’ letter sent to the rescue service.

“Such rapid increases, particularly when they so quickly exceed a funding schedule that was presented only one year ago, put additional, unexpected pressure on our own municipal budgets,” the letter reads.

The service has always been “an absolute bargain” said Andy Watts, chair of the Essex Selectboard.

“We made it clear in the letter that we all intend to support the $18 per capita request. But we’d like to have more open dialogue about their organization,” he said.

The budget recently approved by the Essex board for Town Meeting includes the full funding request of $207,072, according to Essex Town Manager Greg Duggan.

The rescue provides “a highly professional and critically important service” for Westford residents in the southern part of the town, according to Lee McClenny, chair of the Westford Selectboard.

Despite a strong relationship going back many years, the board must be able to justify town spending and answer questions about increase. 

“To those ends, we have joined with several other stakeholder municipalities seeking greater insights into Essex Rescue's budget and operations,” McClenny wrote in an email.

Essex Rescue is asking for $11,646 in Westford, its smallest service area, to service a population of 646, according to its financial report. This is 50% greater than last year’s request after a 150% increase from the previous year, according to McClenny. 

“These expenses came as something of a surprise to us and have placed a significant burden on our Town's annual budget,” he said.

Given Vermont’s growing senior population, pandemic-era staffing issues and escalating costs,  the situation is not unique to Essex Rescue.

While the number of emergency calls have grown throughout the pandemic, there have been fewer volunteer EMTs and paramedics statewide, according to Will Moran, emergency medical services chief for the Vermont Department of Health. 

With rising costs and inflation affecting every sector from fuel and vehicles to emergency supplies, any one service would struggle to absorb these types of pressures. And “it comes at a tough time because EMS was truly on the front lines of the Covid response,” Moran said.

“I think what's happening in Essex is likely sort of the perfect storm of circumstances where you have increasing call volume, decreasing numbers of volunteers, and the service is going through this change very rapidly,” Moran said.

It’s a steep jump for each of the five communities, but one they expect to fund if the proposed budgets are approved in the coming months.

“I appreciate that our requests have been added to municipal budgets, but that doesn’t ensure funding. Once voters vote, we will know better,” Ballard said.

VTDigger's Chittenden County editor.