Lynden may charge ambulance utility for emergency medical services

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 17, 2014 

LYNDEN - The City Council may charge residents, businesses and schools a monthly fee for emergency medical services - ranging from $2.70 to $14.39.

The proposed ambulance utility would be assessed regardless of whether someone uses the service.

The fee could raise as little as $152,361 and as much as $812,189 depending on the rate selected. The difference depends on whether the City Council wants the entire cost of ambulance service to be covered by ratepayers or will continue to cover some portion through the city's general fund.

The full cost is the $812,189 figure, according to a study by Redmond-based FCS Group.

Split over 12 months, covering that full cost would mean a monthly fee of $11.99 for ratepayers - or nearly $144 a year.

If that full amount is split over 10 months this year starting in March, that rate would be $14.39, according to the report.

People who use an ambulance would face another bill - for them or their insurer - just like they do now.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 18, and is likely to refer the idea to the Public Safety Committee for further study and recommendation.

If the council decides to implement the utility, that likely wouldn't happen until after March.

"It's not a done deal in my mind. We're still investigating whether we truly need it or not," Mayor Scott Korthuis said.

Still, Lynden officials say something needs to be done.

"If we stay status quo we're going to have to lower our services. I don't want to do that," Lynden Fire Chief Gary Baar said.

City leaders are looking for new revenue for a number of reasons:

-- EMS calls have been increasing until they made up 87 percent of 1,257 emergency responses in 2012, with fire and other calls making up the rest.

"Our call volume is up. Our demand is up. We're a growing city. We need these guys," Lynden City Administrator Mike Martin said.

-- The $241,000 federal grant that allowed the Lynden Fire Department to hire three new firefighters/EMTs will end March 2015.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant paid most of the cost for the new employees and when that ends, the full financial burden will fall on the city.

"Our general fund is fairly strapped," Korthuis said.

When city officials applied for the grant, they also committed to figuring out how to later pay for the added employees.

"We've been talking about this for over a year now," Korthuis said. "Public safety is extremely important."

-- Lynden is going from a fire department that was fully manned by volunteers to a paid fire department. Also, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped off; those volunteers augment the paid staff, which totals nine.

State law allows cities and towns to create an ambulance utility. Because it's not defined as a tax, the fee doesn't require voter approval.

As required by state law, the city had to first do a study to determine the cost of the service. The study cost $15,000.

The ambulance fee would be charged per billing unit.

There are 5,643 such units in the city split among single-family residential, multi-family residential, commercial businesses, nursing homes/assisted living facilities, and public.

If the City Council decided to charge a rate of $11.99, a single-family residence would be charged that fee per month because it would be counted as one billing unit. Each apartment in a complex or each room in an assisted living facility would be assessed $11.99 because each would be counted as a separate unit.

A business would be counted as one unit, although the annual fair and rodeo still would reimburse the fire department $7,000 for staffing both events.

Residents on Medicaid couldn't be charged an ambulance utility.

City leaders acknowledge that some might not like the proposal, but they're trying to find a way to pay for a service that citizens expect when they call for help.

"We've created an emergency medical system where everyone expects someone to show up when you dial 911," Korthuis said. "There's an infrastructure behind that that costs a lot of money. We all have to figure out how to pay for it."

READ THE REPORT

To read the "Ambulance Cost of Service and Rate Study" prepared for Lynden, click here.

ATTEND THE HEARING

The Lynden City Council will hold a public hearing about the proposal to charge an ambulance utility fee at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 18.

The meeting begins 7 p.m. at Lynden City Hall Annex, 205 4th St.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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