Voters to decide on EMS levy this November

By Oliver Lazenby

This November, Whatcom County voters will decide whether to pass a six-year property tax levy to fund county Emergency Medical Services.

The levy, which needs 60 percent approval to pass, would solve a budget shortfall the EMS system has had since 2011 and fund a fifth ambulance unit that would be in service in the fifth or sixth year of the levy.

The levy rate of 29.5 cents per $1,000 assessed value would add $88.50 per year in property taxes for a home valued at $300,000. If approved, it would begin in 2017.

EMS is overdue for a new funding source, Bellingham fire chief Bill Newbold said at a May 17 county council meeting.

In 2005, voters approved a .01 percent sales tax for EMS. That kept the system fully funded through 2011. Since then, the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County have each contributed more than $1 million per year from their general funds to help pay EMS bills.

A 16-member work group with representatives from more than a dozen local fire districts, governments and other organizations formed in 2014 to analyze the problem and determine how to fund emergency services.

The group recommended the 29.5-cent levy in a 52-page report that came out in March.

“It is the right amount of funding for the system today to be sustainable,” said Newbold, a member of the work group. “Currently, the way we are operating, with the number of units and level of service, it cannot be sustained.”

The levy would raise nearly $7.7 million in 2017 and more in subsequent years, according to the report. Without the levy, the report forecasts a net loss of nearly $5.2 million next year.

Extra money from the levy would go toward the training, wages and equipment needed to operate another ambulance by 2022. Some in the work group think a fifth ambulance is already necessary, Newbold said.

Another expense the levy would permit is funding to train and equip a community paramedic, an outreach position that has resulted in fewer 911 calls and lower EMS costs in other counties, according to the report.

Whatcom County Council voted unanimously to put the levy on the ballot at a May 31 meeting following discussion at an earlier meeting. Councilmember Barbara Brenner expressed concern over asking voters to pay through a property tax and said she’d prefer a sales tax.

Councilmember Barry Buchanan, who was part of the 16-member EMS work group, responded that everyone in the work group, which included local fire chiefs, Whatcom County and city of Bellingham administrators and councilors, agreed on the levy.

“That everyone was in agreement speaks volumes,” Buchanan said.

Fellow councilmember Todd Donovan suggested the ballot language specify what money saved from the county’s general fund would be used for. That’s a concern to him since the county may also need additional money for a new jail and for courthouse repairs in the near future.

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