Wednesday, September 24, 2008

County considers ambulance fee increases

Ambulance ride cost would increase to $690 under proposal

Express Staff Writer

The cost of an ambulance ride in Blaine County may soon increase under a package of fee increases the Blaine County Commission is considering.

Acting in their dual role as the board of the Blaine County Ambulance District, the county commissioners were presented with a plan Tuesday to increase the per-ride charge from $550 to $690 beginning Oct. 1.

Because the county has not yet published the fee increases as required under public noticing requirements, the commissioners delayed taking a vote on the matter. The commissioners will take the issue up again at a future public meeting.

The increased ridership fee is just one of a series of changes to the ambulance district's comprehensive list of fees the commissioners are considering. Also proposed for change is the mileage rate patients are charged—from $9 a mile to $11.25 a mile—under the updated fees.

The fee increase proposal is just the second component of a larger plan to bring the county ambulance district into a better financial footing. Last May, county voters overwhelmingly approved a proposed increase to the ambulance district's existing property tax levy rate.

In all, 81 percent of voters checked "yes" on the levy rate request. The levy rate override required a two-thirds majority—or 66.6 percent approval—to pass.

The three-member Blaine County Commission had voted unanimously to set the election after hearing local emergency services officials warn of a continuing funding shortfall they say threatens the long-term viability of local ambulance services.

Idaho law allows taxing districts to increase their property-tax revenue by only 3 percent per year, which the ambulance district has done, but that has not allowed it to keep pace with rising costs. Larger increases to property taxes must be approved as part of a levy-rate override.

The override approved in May will raise an additional $350,000 per year for the ambulance district and increase local property taxes by $3 per $100,000 of assessed value. The increase in the district's budget from property-tax revenues will take effect next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1.

The additional revenue will fund operations and replacement of ambulances. All along, county officials have said the levy increase won't cover all the district's increased funding needs—hence the need to update the ambulance fees.

Prior to the vote, the commission asked chiefs from the Ketchum Fire Department and Wood River Fire & Rescue, which respectively operate the north and south county ambulance contracts, to come back to them with updated fees to boost that revenue portion of the district's budget. That happened Tuesday.

Altogether, ambulance user fees would increase by 25 percent under the plan, and would raise an additional $70,000 in revenue for the district. Fee revenues, which also include Medicare and Medicaid payments that are not set by the ambulance district, account for about 25 percent of the district's overall budget.

The ambulance district's rising operational costs are partly explained by escalating prices for fuel, tires and other necessary equipment, Blaine County Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Keith Sivertson said in April.

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