Dec. 31--A veteran public-safety leader will temporarily take charge of the Lebanon Rescue Department on Tuesday as the town tries to recoup more than $200,000 in taxpayer money that the department borrowed to cover its bills.
Former Sanford Fire Chief Ray Parent was hired as interim chief this month after longtime Lebanon Rescue Chief Samantha Cole resigned. Her husband, Jason Cole, resigned as the department's assistant chief and gave up his seat as a Lebanon selectman.
In resignation letters posted on the department's Facebook page, the Coles cited a desire to spend more time with their family.
The department's finances and billing practices have been under investigation.
Town Treasurer Jeanette Lemay, who was hired this summer, revealed to selectmen this fall that the rescue department owed the town $167,000 at the end of the fiscal year June 30 -- three years after the department was established as a self-sustaining enterprise. That debt has increased by more than $40,000 since then, she said, and selectmen have limited the department to spending only for essentials, such as fuel.
Lemay said the department borrowed money from the town to pay its bills. She didn't say specifically which expenses caused the debt to pile up, but a letter from Comstar Ambulance Billing Services, which processes and collects insurance reimbursements for the department, offered an explanation.
In a letter to the town's two remaining selectmen, Karen Gerrish and Benjamin Thompson, Comstar General Manager Scott L'Abbe said the department hasn't been getting reimbursed by insurance companies because of poor administrative practices, from a failure to fill out paperwork to late submission of bills. The letter said insurance carriers did not reimburse the department for several emergency runs because the bills were not submitted in time.
In June, Medicare suspended payments to the department, which never filled out a revalidation application that was due in January, said the letter, dated Dec. 16.
Also, the letter said, the number of ambulance calls on the Lebanon Rescue Department blog was "significantly higher" than the number submitted for billing, which "raises the possibility that the call volume is being overstated, a (patient care report) is not completed for each call, or (patient care reports) are being lost somewhere in the process."
Comstar Ambulance Billing Services said that, in a best-case scenario, nearly $100,000 could be considered "uncollectable."
Bradley Morin, the attorney for the York County town, said Parent, the interim chief, will work with the selectmen to "make the department run in a more financially stable manner."
Morin wouldn't say if the town is investigating to determine whether there was any wrongdoing in the department's handling of its finances.
Parent would not comment last week on the specifics of the department's financial situation because he hadn't started working to figure out the problems.
The Coles' resignations, announced Dec. 10, are effective Tuesday.
In his letter, Jason Cole said he has been in public safety for 26 years, starting as a junior firefighter when he was 12. He said he served two terms as a selectman and wants to serve again when his children are older, if his work schedule allows.
Samantha Cole said she has worked for the town since 1998 and also has a full-time job, while pursuing a nursing degree and home-schooling her children.
"At some point something has got to give and I cannot allow that thing to be my family," she said in her resignation letter.
Neither Jason nor Samantha Cole returned calls seeking comment. Selectmen Gerrish and Thompson did not respond to requests for comment.
Parent, who was named interim chief on Dec. 18, served as Sanford's interim town manager and was named Fire Chief of the Year in 2005 by the Maine State Fire Chiefs' Association, according to the town of Lebanon.