EMS levy vote planned for fall

Published on Thu, Feb 20, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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EMS levy vote planned for fall

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

In an effort to create a better understanding of the proposed Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy and the status of EMS services throughout Whatcom County, David Hammers of the Bellingham Fire Department spoke at the Birch Bay station earlier this month.

“It’s been a long process getting to where we are today,” he said. “There have been a lot of meetings over a lot of months. It’s been very difficult to put all these people together and get through this process.”

A 30-member committee came to the conclusion last year that an EMS levy would be the most feasible method in developing a stable funding source for EMS services within the county, amid tightening budgets and recent tax changes in the state. Currently, the Medic One ambulance services and the WhatComm dispatch services are being funded by the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County, but both have stated they can no longer continue to meet the needs with their budgets.

“The county has a hard time covering what they’re covering now,” Hammers said.

Whatcom County Council and three members of the Bellingham city council worked together to establish a levy rate, and discussed numbers between 25 and 50 cents. On January 14, county council set a levy at 37 cents; however, it was finalized on January 28 to stand at 38.5 cents. There had been recommendations from the city and county council to go as high as 50 cents, which is the maximum amount allowable in the state, but officials chose a lesser rate. “Realistically the feeling was to not go to the maximum for lots of reasons,” Hammers said. “You had extremes on both ends, and then Ward Nelson basically said 38.5 cents. They settled on the lower end of the range.”

The cost of EMS services in the county exceeds the 50 cents rate, Hammers stated. The 37 cents is what it takes to cover the Medic One program, which involves ambulance and paramedic services. “The first priority is to keep what we have in place and continue to fund the Medic One program, and let it grow to meet the needs,” Hammers said.

He didn’t think the levy would jump again, instead it would remain at 38.5 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. “The city would have supported a higher rate if the county wanted,” Hammers added.

With the county agreeing to a 38.5 cent levy, the next step in the political process is getting approval from the city council. A resolution will be introduced some time in March, Hammers said. “The reason Bellingham must approve the levy is because it’s state law. All cities in the county with 50,000 people or more must approve the levy. And Bellingham is the only city with 50,000 people.”

Once the city council approves the resolution, a voting date will be for September. “The real interest is to get on the ballot as soon as possible,” Hammers said about a voting time. “But we’ll probably stick with September. It will enlarge the vote.”

If and when the levy passes later this year, the main funding priorities will be Whatcom Medic One, 911 dispatch fees for all EMS agencies, assisting and enhancing Point Roberts EMS delivery, assisting fire agencies with their costs associated with delivery of EMS and retaining current EMS levy funding. “At the present time, several fire districts have their own EMS levies,” he said, noting concerns about the negative impact to all these districts. “The county-wide levy would supercede the local levy.” Lake Whatcom, he added, has a levy of 48 cents, and they have the option to continue collecting the remaining difference.

“It (the levy) provides stable funding service for the EMS system in place around the county,” Hammers said. “An EMS levy is used in the most populous counties in the state.”

The levy needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.