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Whatcom voters will be asked to raise property taxes for EMS

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 on Feb. 19, 2014. Whatcom County voters will be asked to pass a property tax levy to help pay for Emergency Medical Services on the November 2016 ballot.
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 on Feb. 19, 2014. Whatcom County voters will be asked to pass a property tax levy to help pay for Emergency Medical Services on the November 2016 ballot. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Whatcom County voters will be asked to pass an Emergency Medical Services levy on the November 2016 ballot.

Whatcom County Council unanimously voted to put the measure on the ballot during its Tuesday evening, May 31, meeting. Bellingham, the only other jurisdiction large enough to be required under state law to give its permission for such a measure, already approved sending it to voters on May 2.

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.

EMS provides four ambulances with advanced life support that respond throughout the entire county.

EMS provides four ambulances with advanced life support that serve all of Whatcom County. The levy would allow the system to prepare to add a fifth ambulance.

Voters approved a sales tax increase to pay for EMS in 2005 that was expected to keep the system in the black through 2011. It was able to carry on for another five years past 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 drop to about $272,487 by the end of 2016, according to the county. 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 to the county’s service.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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