County and city ponder tax hike for better EMS

Published on Thu, Aug 1, 2002 by Meg Olson

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County and city ponder tax hike
for better EMS

By Meg Olson

After spending six months looking at how to fund emergency medical services (EMS) in Whatcom County, a 30-member committee is recommending voters approve a property tax hike to keep Whatcom Medic One rolling and relieve the growing EMS burden on local fire districts.

On July 30 consultants from the Virginia firm Tri Data presented county council with the committee’s plan to fund county EMS services and allow them to grow. The day before, they had presented their recommendations to Bellingham city council.

“I think its probably something we’re really going to need to look at,” said county council member Barbara Brenner.

Th Medic One ambulance service and the WhatComm dispatch service are now being jointly funded by the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County, but both have indicated they can’t meet rising costs with their tightening budgets. “Their budget crunch is too tight to meet their obligations and they may no longer be able to supply EMS,” said North Whatcom Fire and Rescue chief Mike Campbell who represented the county fire chief’s association on the strategic planning committee.

The committee looked at funding options that ranged from higher property taxes to a tax on restaurant bills and recommended a special EMS levy, which would need to be approved by 60 percent of voters. Of the four levy rates considered, 22 cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation was the break-even point, which represents what the Medic One system cost in 2002 but would already come up short of the 2003 budget. The committee made no official recommendation on the rates but Campbell recommends a six-year levy at a higher rate, 40 cents per thousand, which would cover inflation costs and pay for improvements to the system, such as an additional medic unit in 2005. “System coordination, dispatch, aid service and ambulance – that’s what 40 cents buys. Anything less buys ambulance service only and the district will need to make up those other things themselves,” Campbell said. Fees for ambulance services would continue to make up half of the funding package.

“For me it’s really a question of which amount, not whether it should go on the ballot,” Brenner said. ‘I’d like to look at going with the lower amount and look at some of the other options to make up the difference. I’m tired of seeing the tax always go to the property owners. Other people use the system too.”

Beyond funding issues the new strategic plan recommends restructuring governance of the county EMS system to give more control to the local fire districts. “What’s being recommended is a countywide cooperative interlocal agreement to provide EMS,” Campbell said.

Under the new county EMS structure being proposed, the city of Bellingham fire department would continue to provide ambulance service to the county, which it would sell to a cooperative representing the 17 fire districts in the rest of the county. Funding would also have more local control. Through a formula each community would pay for each call that required a Medic One advanced life support response out of the pool of locally collected EMS tax dollars. The remaining funds would stay in the community to improve fire-district based medical response systems and pay for dispatch.

Campbell said the new county EMS cooperative would also have the option of looking at other ambulance services. “If the city’s cost exceeds the dollars in the pot it forces the county cooperative to look for other solutions,” he said, but the preferred alternative was to keep using the system already in place.

Both Bellingham city council and county council need to approve the ballot item and agree on which amount to ask voters to approve. “That’s still being worked out but we’re probably looking at somewhere around 40 cents,” said Bellingham Fire Department medical services officer David Hammers. “Twenty-two cents represents what we needed yesterday, not what we need tomorrow.” The city and the county also need to decide when to put the EMS levy before voters. While they could still take action in time to get it on the ballot this November, Campbell said a spring special election was more likely.

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