Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Voters to decide on ambulance funding plan

Blaine County Commission approves May 27 election

Express Staff Writer

In May, Blaine County voters will be asked to consider an increase in the levy rate for the county?s ambulance district. The increase would mean that county property owners would pay an additional $3 for every $100,000 of assessed property value. Photo by Mountain Express

Blaine County residents could lose the high level of paramedic service they enjoy unless something is done to boost funding for the county's cash-strapped ambulance district.

Reporting this dire possibility to the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday were the leaders of various emergency services agencies from throughout the county. They said the best way to fix the funding shortfall is to ask county voters to approve an increase to the Blaine County Ambulance District's property-tax levy rate.

Leaving no doubt as to their agreement on the matter, the county commissioners voted unanimously to set May 27 as the date for county voters to consider the tax override question.

If approved by two-thirds of the voters, the override would raise an additional $350,000 per year for the district and increase property taxes by $3 per $100,000 of assessed value. The increase in the district's budget from property-tax revenues would take effect for the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

Approval of the measure would provide the district with funds for ongoing operations costs and replacement of ambulances.

If the override is passed, property owners in the county 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. Using these figures as a basis, property taxes in Carey would increase an average of about $5 per year under the proposed tax hike. In Ketchum, the average homeowner would see an increase of about $27 per year.

Without a funding increase, the county could soon go from having two full-time ambulances staged in Ketchum and Hailey to having just one full-time ambulance staged somewhere mid valley, said Dr. Keith Sivertson, Blaine County emergency medical services director.

"That's the kind of magnitude we're looking at to close that (funding) gap," he said.

Sivertson said that would mean longer response and transportation times for many county residents, especially those living in places like Bellevue as well as in outlying areas like Carey. He said the ambulance district is at the point at which "very hard" decisions may have to be made if funding is not increased to keep pace with inflation.

"This has not been brought to the commissioners in a casual, off-hand fashion," he said.

Idaho law only allows taxing districts to increase their budgets by 3 percent per year, which the ambulance district has done. Larger increases to property taxes must be approved by voters as part of a levy-rate override.

For at least the past three years, the ambulance district has used its reserves to help fund its annual budget, said Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman. That's not a sustainable solution to the district's funding woes, Bowman said.

"I think it's high time we present this question to the voters," he said. "This override is certainly needed."

For now, the district is operating on a nearly $500,000 annual budget shortfall, Sivertson said.

He said the $350,000 raised by the override would only help solve part of that shortfall. He said the remainder would have to be made up in other ways, such as raising fees.

Blaine County first received paramedic-level ambulance service in 2001.

Sivertson said the difference between EMT and paramedic-level emergency service is significant. He said paramedics receive between 1,000 and 1,200 additional hours of training over advanced EMTs, the next level down in emergency services training. He said having paramedic-level emergency service is crucial in places like Blaine County with its large amounts of rural and backcountry settings. Although he didn't directly say so, Sivertson seemed to suggest that the county could lose its paramedic-level services if something isn't done to correct the ambulance district's funding shortfall.

Everyone who spoke during Tuesday's discussion of the May 27 vote voiced support for putting the issue to county voters.

Saying he was only speaking in support of the levy override as a private citizen, Blaine County Disaster Services Coordinator Chuck Turner recalled how emergency transport used to be provided in the county.

"You might make it to the hospital in the back of a pickup," he said.

Turner said things have improved dramatically since the county began providing paramedic-level service.

"Anything less than we're getting right now would be a travesty," he said.

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