Voters extinguish EMS levy, officials disappointed
Whatcom County voters shot down a six-year county-wide property tax levy that would fund Emergency Medical Services (EMS), including Whatcom Medic One ambulance service.
The proposed levy � 38.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value � needed 60 percent of the vote to pass; however, 55 percent of those at the polls voted against it. As of Tuesday night, more than 15,930 people voted no, and 12,980 voted in favor of it.
The levy would have provided $5 million annually to the Whatcom Medic One system � and officials say this money was essential to the system�s operation, which has seen an increased demand of 10 percent last year and a projected 10 percent increase next year.
For several years, fire districts and Whatcom Medic One (administered by the Bellingham fire department) have both been dispatched to respond to EMS calls throughout Whatcom County, a 2,100 square mile area containing 19 fire agencies. Local fire districts are often the first to respond � because they are the closest � and initiate basic life saving support. Following initial care from these first responders, the arriving Whatcom Medic One unit then transports the victim to the hospital, as most fire districts throughout the county do not. Currently, there are four medic units throughout the county � two stationed in Bellingham and two in rural areas.
The budget for Whatcom Medic One � approved by both the Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council � topped at $5.4 million for 2003. Because of the increased demand, the system is suffering, EMS and fire officials say.
�Due to the increasing population and the graying of America, there is a 10 percent increase in emergency response within the last year,� said Bellingham interim fire chief Bill Boyd said. �There is an increase in the over 60 population within the county and that is adding to the demand.�
Local fire officials are disappointed the proposed levy didn�t pass, but there are some options and the community still needs service, they said.
�It�s going to do is provide us some challenges to determine how we�re going to provide advanced life support to the county depending on what Bellingham and Whatcom Medic One does,� North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) chief Jim Rutherford said. �There are some options we have to look at, and we�re going to have to figure out how this is all going to fit together. It�s going to take some work.�
The amount of service, he said, is expected to be the same until the end of next year. �Hopefully it won�t affect ALS service too much in the county,� he said. �But that�s the issue: are we going to be able to provide the citizens of this community ALS services after the end of the year?�
The service agreement between Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham is scheduled to expire on December 31, 2004 � the same date the NWFRS interlocal agreement between fire districts 3, 5 and 13 will end.
�We�re disappointed obviously, but we will continue to provide the best level of fire protection as we can with the level of funding we have,� NWFRS fire administrator Dave Crossen said.
Point Roberts, which is fire district 5, will continue to have a fire department and service the community, he said. It was supposed to receive $110,000 annually from the levy for service, because it�s isolated from the rest of the county.
�We will continue to serve our communities to the best of our ability,� Crossen said.
One of the more than 15,000 people that voted no on the levy is former city of Bellingham finance director and organizer of the Committee of Public Safety, Lynne Carpenter.
�The vote against the EMS levy was not a vote against Whatcom Medic One. It was a vote against a new property tax,� Carpenter said. �It was a vote that sent the message that costs must be a factor when providing EMS services. It sent a message to our elected officials that they should continue to fund the EMS program from existing taxes.�
Now, she said, city of Bellingham and county council members will be forced to deal with the real problem: out of control spending.
�I would urge the county executive and Bellingham�s mayor to appoint an oversight committee that is not dominated by the Bellingham fire department to examine how to get costs under control while maintaining a quality service level,� she said.