By Pat Grubb
Countywide, the most important tax measure on the ballot is Proposition 2016-1 which would create a six-year property tax levy for emergency medical services. Point Roberts, not so much.
If approved, beginning in 2017, property owners would be taxed an additional 29.5 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation for the provision of emergency medical services (EMS). The owner of a $300,000 property would pay an extra $88.50 in taxes.
Currently, the county EMS is funded by a voter-approved sales tax ($2.3 million), user fees ($2.5 million) and money from the city of Bellingham and county general funds ($1.1 million and $1.4 million, respectively) for a total of $7.3 million. Even still, EMS is expected to end up with around a $1 million shortfall, which will be drawn from reserves.
In Point Roberts, emergency medical services are provided by the fire district and funded by a local tax levy. Point Roberts does not receive any EMS funding support from the county. Of the district’s total 2016 budget of $552,756, $138,300 is earmarked for EMS.
The only benefit that Point Roberts receives from the county EMS is the occasional transport from a transfer point on Highway 99 when the Point Roberts fire department is unable to transport the patient to Bellingham due to personnel shortages or when the Airlift Northwest helicopter is unable to pick up critical care patients in Point Roberts. According to Point Roberts fire chief Chris Carleton, such transfers happen “very infrequently.”
The levy was placed on the ballot by a vote of county council following recommendations made by the Whatcom County EMS Funding Work Group which issued its report on March 16. The work group consisted of 16 individuals, 10 of whom were fire professionals, either fire chiefs or fire department labor representatives. Five were either elected council members or city employees while just one was a citizen representative.
Among the report’s findings was a conclusion that the committee “did not have the data to confirm the timing for a fifth ALS unit.” Further, “financial and statistical data were often difficult to obtain” and “accounting methods differed between agencies.”
Proponents say the tax will enable the system to balance the budget, hire an administrator, train staff and provide for the future addition of a fifth ambulance.
Opponents argue that the measure is ill-conceived and is unnecessary at this time. The Committee on Public Safety (CPS) points out that King County has one ALS ambulance per 75,000 people while Whatcom County has four ALS ambulances for a population of about 200,000 or one for every 50,000 people.
As county ALS ambulances on average only make two calls per shift, CPS believes there’s no pressing need for another ambulance for at least 10 years. Nationally, the optimum call per unit hour is about .55; the county call per unit is .26.
The report projected that total EMS operating costs will increase from $5.9 million in 2017 to $8.5 million in 2022. Total EMS expenses including administration and indirect expenses will increase from $9.9 million to $13.2 million. Reserves are expected to reach $10.1 million after six years; national standards call for three months of operating expenses which would be about $3 million.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has also said there’s no need for an EMS levy given other more pressing priorities facing the county, such as the need for a new jail. He told county councilmembers back in the spring before they voted to place the levy on the November ballot that the county could continue to support the EMS from the county’s general fund.
Pushing the levy was a campaign committee called EMS Saves Lives. According to the Public Disclosure Commission, the group has raised $89,979 and spent $38,400. The donor list reads like a roster of firefighter union halls. Donations have been made by unions and firefighter associations from Boise, Bremerton, Blaine, Sedro Wooley and more.
Local politicians also put money in the pot: Bellingham mayor Kelli Linville, Whatcom County Council members Ken Mann and Rud Browne among others. Big donors included SEIU Healthcare ($5,000), Raptor Enterprises ($15,000), Lummi Nation ($15,000), PeaceHealth ($15,000) and the Washington State Council of Firefighters ($5,000).
The tax levy will require a 60 percent super-majority in order to pass. Voters should note that the levy will be duplicative to the taxes they currently pay: property owners will continue to pay the same amount into the general funds and the EMS sales tax and user fees will remain the same.