Blaine County voters headed to the polls next Tuesday may well decide how fast paramedics reach their doorstep in years to come.
In a vote set for Tuesday, May 27, county voters will consider whether to approve an increase to the Blaine County Ambulance District's existing property tax levy rate. In March, the three-member Blaine County Commission voted unanimously to set the date after hearing local emergency services officials warn of a continuing funding shortfall they say threatens the longterm viability of local ambulance services.
To provide the voting public with information on the important issue prior to next week's vote, the county commission helped form SAFER, which stands for Support Adequate Funding for Emergency Response.
"I think the consequences are dire," said Len Harlig, who with the backing of the commissioners is leading the public informational campaign in the run-up to the election. "We're trying to get (the public) to support this to maintain the existing level of service."
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 next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.
Approval would provide the district with funds for ongoing operations 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 by an average of about $5 per year under the proposed tax hike. In Ketchum, the average homeowner would see an increase of about $27.
Without the 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, Blaine County Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Keith Sivertson told commissioners in March.
"That's the kind of magnitude we're looking at to close that (funding) gap," he said.
Sivertson said the change would mean longer response times for many county residents, especially those living in Bellevue and outlying areas like Carey. He said the ambulance district is at the point at which "very hard" decisions will have to be made if funding is not increased to keep pace with inflation.
Much of the issue comes down to depleting reserve funds set aside for the ambulance district. The funds help finance the continuing operations of the struggling district, Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees said in early April.
He said the ambulance district's reserves are anticipated to drop to $312,179 by Oct. 1, from the $459,815 that were on hand Oct. 1, 2007.
One purpose of the reserve fund is to finance the district's operations each year from October through December. Property tax revenue, which funds about 70 percent of the district's nearly $1.7 million budget, doesn't start coming in until after Jan. 1 of each year. McNees said property taxes are meant to replenish the reserve fund, but have not kept pace with the district's outlays.
For now, the district is operating on a nearly $500,000 annual budget shortfall, officials say.
In the ambulance district's 22-year history, the county has never asked voters to approve a levy override, McNees said.
Idaho law only allows taxing districts to increase their budgets by 3 percent per year, which the ambulance district has done, but that has not allowed it to keep pace with rising costs due to inflation. Larger increases to property taxes must be approved as part of a levy-rate override.
McNees said the county would prefer to replace its fleet of seven ambulances on a cycle of one vehicle per year, but hasn't been able to do so in recent years because of the lack of funding. He said the oldest ambulance in the county's ambulance fleet is a 16-year-old vehicle operated by Ketchum.
The Ketchum Fire Department and Wood River Fire and Rescue each operate the north and south ambulance operations in the county. The county contracts with both departments. The district's rising operational costs are partly explained by escalating prices for fuel, tires and other equipment, Sivertson said.
"Everything costs more," he said.
In the end, voters will need to decide what level of ambulance service they want, Harlig said. The county first received more costly paramedic level service in 2001.
"The longer the ride to the emergency room the more important it is to have a paramedic on-board," he said. "That increases your odds of survival."
Here are the details of next week's levy rate override vote:
· Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
· To find out where your polling place is, call the Blaine County Elections Department at (208) 788-5510.
· For more information on the proposed levy rate increase, go to www.blainecountysafer.com.
For complete election results, visit www.mtexpress.com.