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Southern Franklin County towns have history of EMS collaboration

DEERFIELD — For almost two years, the South County EMS Working Group has held long, late-night meetings every two weeks to create a proposal for a regional paramedic ambulance service. The months of work have involved budget crunching, fiscal worries, political debate and sometimes brow-beating.

But throughout it all, the leaders in the three towns — Deerfield, Whately and Sunderland — have continually pushed ahead in their work, determined to improve the now-volunteer basic EMS forces for residents. And the working group recently finished developing a $749,595 budget for the three towns.

Though the Deerfield Select Board decided recently to provide residents with two options to consider at special Town Meeting to improve its ambulance service — the regional EMS proposal or an expanded town service — the board continues to favor working with its neighbors.

The decision caused some controversy among the towns, but the three boards recently agreed to forge ahead with the regional plan.

“We have a good working relationship. We always have,” Deerfield Select Board Chairman Mark Gilmore said. “We looked at trying to make this work and crossed boundaries that haven’t been crossed by other towns.”

He added, “No matter what happens, this is still an effort that should be applauded.”

History of collaborating

At the core of the southern Franklin County towns’ ability to work on the regional program amid differences in politics and cultures is their shared history of collaborating with one another.

A key part of that collaboration began 59 years ago.

In 1954, Sunderland, Deerfield, Whately and Conway teamed up to create the Frontier Regional School District and the central superintendent’s office that oversees the independent town elementary schools.

The regional school agreement essentially helped pave the way for future partnerships as the towns became accustomed to working with one another on school budgets.

“The school has been the common thread between the four towns,” said Sunderland Town Administrator Margaret Nartowicz. “The school is the most prominent example of four towns approving a regionalization.”

The Frontier school district has encouraged the four towns to work on other projects together, such as Comcast cable negotiations, Frontier Community Access Television, the South County Senior Center and now the South County Regional EMS.

“It’s a natural grouping with the school district,” Nartowicz said. “There’s been a lot of communication over the years regarding the commonality of the school district. It has helped maintain the communication between the four towns.”

The South County Senior Center, based in South Deerfield, was reformed in 2010 with a Board of Oversight with one Select Board member from each town. The new center replaced the former Frontier Senior Center, which was run by a 21-member consortium of the Councils on Aging.

It proved to be the second test for Whately, Sunderland and Deerfield to work together.

“We learned about how to work together as a group,” said Whately Town Administrator Lynn Sibley, who serves as the senior center liaison. “We learned how to compromise with one another during a municipal agreement.”

The bottom line

One of the major incentives to work together is money.

“Regionalization is good for Conway or any town when that town can provide the same or better level of service to its residents for less money,” said Conway Select Board Chairman John O’Rourke.

In recent years the state has encouraged small towns to work together through grants awarded to regional projects.

The towns are eying one state grant — the Community Innovation Challenge Grant created to encourage regional projects — for the South County EMS service.

“Before, we didn’t see the need to work together,” Sibley said. “Now the state is pushing for regionalization. It seems like a good opportunity. And there is now a support structure. Before, we were on our own and it was a monumental task.”

Other resources include the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which secured a grant for an ambulance study for the three towns, and the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts, which provides a forum for its 75 member towns to exchange ideas.

“We don’t feel as isolated as we did a few years ago,” Sibley said. “It makes it easy to work together on a project.”

For a regional project to work, Nartowicz said, communities need shared goals.

“Collaborations don’t always work,” Nartowicz said. “Sometimes what one community sees as really a good goal, another might not have the same need.”

When the regional EMS talks began, originally a number of towns — including Conway and Hatfield — were invited to participate, but those communities decided not to move forward for geographic or monetary reasons.

Conway is one of the four towns whose needs sometimes differ from its neighbors as a result of its distance from the others.

Though Conway Ambulance Director Jodie Bennett was involved in the initial talks to regionalize EMS services in early 2012, Conway opted not to join because of concerns about the response time for residents, especially on the west side of town, and the need for a four-wheel drive ambulance to respond to calls in certain areas of the town, O’Rourke said.

While Conway is not involved in all projects with its neighbors, O’Rourke said the Select Board “is eager to cooperate and collaborate with the other boards on any regionalization effort that makes sense for Conway.”

Differences

There is also a recognition by the towns of each other’s different political and cultural circumstances.

Wendy Foxmyn, the interim town administrator in Deerfield, has spent 30 years working in different towns across western Massachusetts. Before coming to Deerfield she worked as director of regional services and innovations at Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, where part of her job consisted of helping 43 communities as different as Springfield and Longmeadow work together.

“I’m impressed by the civility of the conversation,” Foxmyn said, referring to the EMS working group. “I think people are listening and appreciate others’ financial situations and cultural differences in each town. There is a recognition that there are different populations with different needs.”

During her career, Foxmyn said, she has seen the divide between communities when they work together on major projects. Part of the give and take is respecting each other’s differences, she said.

“There’s a little back and forth, but that’s part of the decision-making process,” Foxmyn said. “I’m impressed by the good will and good work of the three towns.”

Detours

The partnership hasn’t always been so smooth.

The three-town EMS collaboration almost became a two-town effort when Whately EMTs expressed their wish to remain an independent service.

Though the Whately Select Board has yet to officially endorse the proposed service, its actions indicate support, Sibley said. And the Select Board is considering other ways to keep the town EMTs involved, such as per diem volunteer hours in the new service or maintaining a partial town-based force.

The Deerfield board’s decision to present two paramedic EMS services for townspeople to consider also rippled the water, until the board reassured its partners it plans to move ahead with the regional service.

The towns have considered previous troubles while developing the EMS proposal.

The towns chose an EMS budget formula based equally on their tax bases and their population.

It is intended to be a fair formula avoiding conflicts that have occurred under the Frontier funding formula, Sibley said.

“Years ago, we couldn’t easily come up with a compromise like now,” Sibley said. “The boards of selectmen realize to make things work, there needs to be compromise.”

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