Friday, March 7, 2008

Commissioners to hold hearing on raising taxes for ambulance district

Primary ballot would include tax override levy

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commission will hold a public hearing next week to help determine whether to put a property-tax override question on the May 27 ballot. If passed, the override would raise an additional $370,000 per year for the Blaine County Ambulance District and increase property taxes by $3 per $100,000 of assessed value.

The hearing will be held Tuesday morning at 11:30 a.m. at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.

"We think it is important to give the public an opportunity to give input," said County Commissioner Sarah Michael, "especially when it involves taxes."

Michael said that under state law, the county budget can increase by only 3 percent per year. She said the override levy under consideration will raise taxes further to pay for ambulance vehicles, equipment, training for paramedics and salaries.

In an e-mail circulated to county employees this week, Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman described the urgent circumstances that led to the referendum proposal.

"Without this increase, we stand the real possibility of decreased response capabilities, which include reduction of advanced life-support ambulances and a return to a much lower level of service," Lassman said. "EMS (emergency medical service) training budgets will most likely be cut, and vital EMS equipment for cardiac monitoring will not be replaced in a timely manner."

The County Commission serves as the board of the ambulance district, which contracts with the Ketchum Fire Department in Ketchum and Wood River Fire & Rescue in Hailey. The district keeps one paramedic-staffed ambulance in Hailey and Ketchum 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and three more on-call ambulances in both the north and south county staffed by on-call volunteers.

According to district Medical Director Keith Sivertson, the tax increase is needed to avoid a $400,000 to $500,000 budget shortfall beginning in fiscal 2008. He said that last year the county went into its ambulance reserve funds for about $100,000 to cover the district's operating expenses.

"Without this increase in funds, we could go from having one ambulance in the north and south to only one in the mid-valley," Sivertson said.

If the levy override is passed, property owners would see a range of tax increases based on property assessments. The average home value in 2007 for Ketchum was just over $900,000, while the average for Carey was about $160,000. Under the proposed tax hike, property taxes in Carey would increase on average about $20 per year. Ketchum homeowners would see an increase of close to $110 per year.

The tax levy override would require a two-thirds majority to be approved.

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