Time to budget for the Rescue Squad

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If nothing changes between now and Town Meeting Day, March 7, voters will have before them a ballot article asking whether the town should give a little more than $200,000 to the Bennington Rescue Squad.

If the article passes, the tax rate could go up by 2 percent, according to town officials. If it fails, the Rescue Squad will get nothing from the town and may find itself in financial jeopardy if its funding shortfall problem is not addressed soon.

The squad's leaders say it's currently running an annual deficit in its operating budget because of low insurance reimbursement rates, a high number of non-billable calls and a health care system with serious systemic problems.

The Select Board is scheduled to meet with squad leaders on Monday to talk about amending the ballot request, possibly lowering it to something closer to $30,000. Ballot articles don't usually change once they're signed and submitted, so there are some legal questions that need to be answered in that regard.

It's been suggested that the squad withdraw its petition after the board agrees to put forward its own request, one asking for something that's a little easier for taxpayers to swallow for the time being. This sounds like the wisest course of action at this point, but it raises some questions.

At least 435 voters had to sign the squad's petition for it to be valid. Given the voter turnout at most Town Meeting days, that's a fair number. Does the squad owe it to the people who signed the petition to stick with that figure?

In any case, the petition sends a strong message that there is support in the community for giving the squad $207,000. Then again, ballot articles have been shot down before and it's possible that the message being sent here is a little too strong for most voters, who may balk at future requests. Had the rescue squad come forward with a petition for a lesser amount, that might have been better.

What is clear is that starting soon, the board should begin planning to make a regular line item in the town budget for the Bennington Rescue Squad. It already does so with the Bennington Free Library and similar groups. In those cases, the board has access to each entity's financial information, allowing a clear picture of how taxpayer money is being spent.

The rescue squad performs a vital service in Bennington. It's too important to have its fate be in question, either from a health care system that needs work — work it probably won't get anytime soon — or from the somewhat uncertain appropriations process.

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