Erin Bean fears she will have no one working for her. The Wiscasset Ambulance Service director told selectmen that, in Oct. 28’s Zoom workshop as they mulled using some of the town’s federal pandemic relief funds for raises or bonuses for WAS workers. The board plans a public hearing Nov. 16.
Starbucks workers make more and are not out working in the rain and snow and worrying about what they might be exposing their families to, Bean said. “We need to decide if somebody who’s able to save your life is worth (paying) more than somebody who’s making your coffee.” Workers can make more at other ambulance services or by leaving ambulance work, she said.
About $47,000 of Wiscasset’s first $198,716 in American Rescue Plan Act funds would cover six months’ raises to match pay at Central Lincoln County (CLC) Ambulance or Waldoboro Ambulance, Wiscasset Town Manager Dennis Simmons said. Selectmen raised concern other town workers would request raises and, when the ARPA funds run out, taxpayers would face taking over the higher pay. And participants said that risks rejection or a citizen-led, local look at ending the department like the town considered a few years ago.
Selectman Dusty Jones argued for keeping the increases, post-ARPA. “If we don’t raise the rates for our employees, it will get really easy to pay them because we won’t have them.”
Simmons reminded selectmen to expect a “rough budget year” for 2022-23, due to pay pressure across all town departments, including public works, police and parks and recreation. “I think we’re just fortunate that we have these (ARPA) funds to help alleviate some of that pressure, at least out of the gate.” Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department now pays almost $7 more an hour than Wiscasset Police Department, he said. Not all town jobs would qualify for ARPA funding, he added.
Bonuses would not commit the town to future funding like raises would, selectmen said. A worker might leave after getting a bonus, Simmons said.
If the bonus equaled the raise, but came months from now, “They’d have no reason to leave because they’d know they’re going to be getting it,” Selectman Pam Dunning said. And that would give the town time to explore other funding and to plan something sustainable, she said.
Simmons and Bean said the ambulance service’s ability to keep staff is at stake, and Wiscasset is not alone. New raises at CLC have their workers making $5 to $8 more an hour than Wiscasset’s, Simmons said. The day may come when it takes a very long time for an ambulance to arrive, he told the board. He noted the board could discuss the pay issue with the budget committee when the two meet soon.
Simmons said some towns need town meeting approval of ARPA spending, but Wiscasset has two blanket, annual warrant articles that let selectmen spend as they see fit any extra money received, including grants. Simmons said Maine Municipal Association recommends going to voters on ARPA, but town counsel Shana Mueller of Bernstein Shur spoke with MMA’s legal service and then told him she is very confident those annual questions cover it. Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission’s Sandy Gilbreath said she is not a lawyer, but agreed. “That to me would seem fine,” based on her read of ARPA, she said.
“I’m glad to know that we have a catch-all,” Selectman Terry Heller said. “If that’s the way we’ve always done it, we ought to be consistent with ourselves.”
Selectmen have already planned to spend $123,500 of the $198,716 on generators for sewer pump stations, Simmons noted. Besides possibly spending about $47,000 on ambulance service pay, the board mulled spending some ARPA funds on equipment for better quality on boards’ live-streamed and recorded meetings.