Lynden will charge $6 monthly fee for emergency medical services

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 11, 2014 

Lynden ambulance fee

Lynden firefighters Patrick Williams, left, Paul Pluschakov, Lt. Michael Whittley and Justin Rasmussen load a patient into the back of a Whatcom Medic One unit on Front Street in Lynden Wednesday morning, Feb. 19, 2014. The Lynden City Council is discussing how to pay for emergency medical services.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

LYNDEN - The city will charge residents, businesses and schools $6 a month to help pay for ambulance service.

The City Council approved the utility and set the rate by a 5-2 vote on Monday, Feb. 10, with City Councilmen Nick Laninga and Tobey Gelder voting no.

When the city will start collecting the utility, expected to bring in about $406,000 a year for the Lynden Fire Department, is still to be determined although it could begin some time this summer.

"We want to make the fire department sustainable for the long haul. We know we have to fund it somehow," Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis said. "We also know citizens want the ambulance service."

The city could have set the monthly fee at $12 to raise as much as $812,189 a year, the full allowable amount that could be recovered from rates.

"I think it was a step in the right direction," Fire Chief Gary Baar said of the $6 monthly fee.

State law allows cities and towns to create an ambulance utility; about 10 in the state have done so.

Because it's not defined as a tax, the fee doesn't require voter approval.

City leaders have said they're looking for new revenue for emergency medical services because:

-- 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, according to a report by Redmond-based consultant FCS Group.

-- The $241,000 federal grant that allowed the Lynden Fire Department to hire three new firefighters/EMTs will end March 2015. About $182,800 of that is attributed to EMS.

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

-- 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 sharply from 31 in 2013 to 11 today; those volunteers augment the paid staff, which totals nine, and there aren't enough volunteers to fill the positions needed on shift.

Baar said the sharp drop was caused by burnout, volunteers moving away or leaving for other jobs, or volunteers being hired by fire departments - including three for the Lynden Fire Department.

A little more than half of the $6 monthly fee per ratepayer will allow the fire department to keep on the three new hires once the grant ends, Baar added.

The remaining $2.42 of the monthly fee could be used to cover the cost of hiring two full-time firefighters/EMTs for the fire department or one full-time employee and three part-time employees - allowing Baar to staff day shifts, which are difficult to fill.

Residents in nursing homes/assisted living facilities who are on Medicaid couldn't be charged an ambulance utility, nor could Medicaid recipients receiving in-home care.

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

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