Tax hike may be needed to keep Whatcom Medic One services

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 11, 2013 

Whatcom Medic One

Joe Bertels, a paramedic with Whatcom Medic One, wheels a gurney into Sea Mar Community Health Center during a response on March 9, 2012 in Bellingham.

COLIN DILTZ — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Fire officials and Whatcom County Council members agree that advanced ambulance service should be kept at its current level or expanded, and voters should be asked to approve a tax increase to cover the cost.

Whatcom Medic One's troubled finances have been the biggest obstacle to an agreement among Bellingham, Whatcom County and the Ferndale fire district over how to provide countywide emergency response.

Life-threatening calls are answered by Medic One, which includes four full-time ambulances out of Bellingham. Fire District 7 in Ferndale runs a fifth, part-time advanced ambulance partially subsidized by the county, but it only responds within the boundaries of fire districts 7 and 17 (Sandy Point).

Medic One is losing about $1 million a year, as federal reimbursements have decreased and billable calls have fallen short of expectations.

A contract keeping the Medic One system intact is set to expire at the end of the year. Money issues aside, a crucial ingredient to maintaining the system after 2013 will be establishing goodwill between Bellingham and Fire District 7 firefighters, council member Ken Mann said.

The two labor groups fought bitterly more than three years ago over who may get trained in advanced life support, with the Bellingham group interested in having all the county paramedics. They recently accepted an invitation from Mann to meet, and both came out of the meeting saying they would look ahead, not back to past disputes, to push for unified paramedic service.

"To get them all on the same page is and was the most important thing," Mann said in an interview. "As long as those two were fighting it out ... the system looked bad. And there was no way anybody was going to rally behind a system that looked dysfunctional."

In letters delivered to the council on Monday, July 8, both labor groups rejected county Executive Jack Louws' proposal to reduce the number of advanced ambulances to four, to balance the Medic One budget. Both are lobbying the County Council to ask voters to approve a 0.1 percent sales tax increase for advanced life support service. Council members decided on Tuesday, July 9, that would happen no sooner than next year.

Most council members at Tuesday's meeting distanced themselves from Louws' plan and indicated they wanted what fire officials wanted. Before voters consider a 0.1 percent sales tax hike, Medic One could balance its budget using its $3.2 million in reserves, said Mann and some others on the council.

Council member Kathy Kershner spoke about keeping expenses within existing revenues, but not if it meant reducing service.

"I'm probably going to lean more on, 'This is how much money we have, let's be prudent and sensible about how we use it,'" Kershner said. "At the same time ... if we do expect call volumes to increase in the next several years, why would we want to put a dent in our system and then have to recover from that?"

Sam Crawford, another conservative on the council, praised Louws' plan and said fire districts, the county and the city should continue to find ways to make a smaller system effective. But he also said he was part of a consensus that saw the inevitability of a sales tax increase.

"Most people are on the same page that ... we do need to take a look at that extra 10th (of a percent) and possibly ask the voters to approve that," Crawford said.

After Tuesday's discussion, Louws and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville maintained that a reduced system could respond effectively to emergencies.

"I believe based on the dollars that we have, based on the technical data that we've reviewed, that the proposal is workable," Louws said in an interview.

Before approving a new Medic One agreement, the council plans to meet as a committee on July 23.


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Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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