Although Maine law allows The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to bill lost persons, it is a practice that is rarely followed in Maine. In this case, the Carrabassett Valley Fire Chief and Sugarloaf Mountain sent out the bills.
"I know that it is a can of worms," said Carrabassett Fire Chief Courtney Knapp, "but where do you go? Do you sit still and wring your hands and say, 'There's nothing we can do about it?' There is. This is an attempt to."
The "pay for rescue" idea is controversial. Maine law dictates that Game Wardens from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will handle searches. This department, which runs off dedicated revenue mostly from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, is repaid for searches from the state's general fund. On search scenes, wardens coordinate the efforts of local agencies.
At Sugarloaf, eight different agencies from four communities responded. On Friday night, February 26th, five boarders were found very quickly. On Sunday night and Monday morning, February 28th and March 1st, heavy snows blanketed the area. Searcheswere challenged by the blizzard and had to give up overnight and return the next day. In both searches, all the missing were found and there was no major injury.
However, the search took its toll on the agencies involved. "On any given day, there's thirty-five to forty game wardens patrolling the woods. If we have to pull them to go over to Sugarloaf to look for a snowboarder, they're not doing their primary law enforcement mission," said Major Greg Sanborn of the Maine Warden Service. The department did not send bills in the case, but the town and the mountain did.
Chief Knapp felt the first search cost his town twelve hundred dollars. Sugarloaf sent a bill for eleven hundred dollars as well. Sugarloaf President John Diller confirmed to NEWS CENTER that he was backing up the bills by banning the boarders from the mountain until the tabs were paid.
All but one in the first group had settled his account. None in the second group have. That's because the town bill was for four thousand dollars. The mountain's bill was a little less. Chief Knapp said the total was "just pennies" below eight thousand dollars. None of the four lost overnight had paid the individual tabs of two thousand dollars apiece.
By law, they don't have to. There's nothing in Maine law that demands the bills be paid. There's nothing in Maine law that entitles rescue angencies to send bills.
At the state level, the department that expends the energy is compensated by the tax payer. Only twice in history has IF & W sent bills. In one famous case, a man was reported lost by his wife. He was found a couple of days later in a cabin with his girlfriend.
Because quick responses to searches dramatically improve the success rate, wardens do not want people to hesitate before they pick up the phone and call for help.
Local towns, currently strapped in difficult financial times, are becoming more aggressive about recouping costs from non-taxpayers. In Carrabassett Valley, many of the rescue workers are volunteers bringing their own equipment into some extreme conditions. "That's all our stuff," said Bob Carlton, the town's Deputy Chief. "If we go out and tear up a bunch of equipment, that's all our cost. It's you have to think about it. There has to be some sort of deterent."
However, some find these measures punitive. Bills are mailed out inconsistantly. Critics also contend that local rescue personel are not judges and that they should not be making decisions about who was irresponsible and who wasn't. In these situations, they point out that searching is not an exact science. Searches vary based on experience of the rescue workers and the number of volunteers that happen to be available.