On May 17, Whatcom County Council will consider asking voters to approve an Emergency Medical Services levy on the November ballot.
For a home valued at $300,000, the proposed six-year levy would add $88.50 per year to property taxes, or $531 over the life of the levy if the home’s value remained the same.
The levy rate would be 29.5 cents per $1,000 assessed value.
Fire officials, labor representatives and leaders from Bellingham, Whatcom County and the small cities all worked together over the last year to figure out how to sustainably pay for emergency services, and settled on the levy as the best option in March.
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EMS provides four ambulances with advanced life support that respond throughout the entire county.
Voters approved a sales tax increase to pay for EMS in 2005 that was expected to keep the system in the black through 2011. The system has been able to carry on another five years since that benchmark, partly through payments from the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County general funds, and by drawing on reserves to help pay the bills, Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Newbold said.
Current funding sources for the advanced life support system this year include:
▪ $1.4 million from the Whatcom County General Fund.
▪ $1.1 million from the city of Bellingham General Fund.
▪ $2.5 million from user fees.
▪ $2.3 million from the 2005-approved sales tax (10 cents per $100 purchase); two thirds of that tax go to EMS, the other third goes to public safety.
Even with that $7.3 million in revenue, this year the system is projected to come up $1 million short, which will be covered by reserves.
Similar shortfalls in recent years have depleted reserves, which are expected to dwindle to $272,487 by the end of 2016, according to the county.
To put that in perspective, that would cover less than two weeks of operations.
In addition to balancing the budget, the levy would set up the ability to train staff and pay for the upfront costs of adding a fifth ambulance into the county’s service, Newbold said.
“A fifth unit is very near,” Newbold told County Council members Tuesday night, May 3. “Some can argue it was needed yesterday, some today, some say it’s not quite needed yet. We are working to maximize the capacity of the current system, but we do recognize the need for a fifth unit somewhere in the time of this levy.”
City, county agreement required
On Monday, May 2, Bellingham City Council unanimously asked the County Council to put the measure in front of voters this year.
For such a countywide levy, state law requires approval from all cities with at least 50,000 residents before the measure can go to voters.
On Tuesday, County Council members spent the better part of an hour at the start of their 7 p.m. meeting quizzing Newbold and City Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich about the proposal.
“We heard this would free up over a million dollars at the city and the county,” council member Carl Weimer said. “I wondered if there would be any designation at the city level of how that money would be spent.”
The city is currently going to run a deficit of about $1.5 million just to maintain its current level of service, Heinrich replied. If voters approve the levy, that would basically balance the city’s deficit.
“From a city perspective, this is not a way to solve our budget problem,” Heinrich elaborated. “It helps. It helps address that, but more than anything it creates that sustainable system moving forward.”
I don’t want to see us go to the voters and say we need money for EMS, then the next election opportunity we need money for the jail, then the next election we need money for the city shortfall, then the next the county shortfall.
Rud Browne, Whatcom County Council member
Todd Donovan and other County Council members asked if the ballot language should spell out where the general fund money both the county and city have used to subsidize the program would be reallocated, in order to be transparent.
That would be up to the council, Newbold said.
Donovan and member Rud Browne suggested the county and city should figure out a cohesive strategy for asking voters to foot the bill for a variety of large budget items set to come up in the next few years. Those big-ticket items could include a new Whatcom County Jail, millions of dollars in building repairs for county properties, ongoing funding for Bellingham parks, and of course the EMS system.
“I would like to see this discussed as an entirety when we sit down with both councils,” Browne said. “I don’t want to see us go to the voters and say we need money for EMS, then the next election opportunity we need money for the jail, then the next election we need money for the city shortfall, then the next the county shortfall.”
Though the members voiced differing opinions of the levy and overall budget concerns, it appeared the measure would be met with general support: At the tail end of the meeting all seven members voted to have staff draw up a resolution they can consider on May 17, noting their support either for the plan or at least letting voters take a look at the issue.