Local Election

Your guide to the contested Whatcom County EMS levy

On the ballot this November is a measure asking for a property tax increase to fund Whatcom County’s Emergency Medical Services for the next six years.

Those in support of Proposition 1 say the levy is needed to keep up with a growing population by adding a fifth ambulance, hiring an EMS administrator, and stocking financial reserves for the future.

Opponents counter there are greater public safety priorities, and that officials want to raise taxes before finishing research on where to spend the money, when it should be the other way around.

So let’s break this thing down, starting with the very basics:

What does EMS mean?

It’s shorthand for the system of first-responders to medical emergencies. You might not care about this when you’re having a heart attack, but paramedics and EMTs show up in two kinds of ambulances: Advanced Life Support or Basic Life Support. With this levy, we’re mainly concerned with ALS. County fire districts have their own BLS units, for 911 calls that aren’t life-threatening, and districts have their own local tax situations.

Three ALS ambulances are stationed in Bellingham, and a fourth roams the county from a fire hall off Grandview Road, north of Ferndale. These are the aid rigs staffed by paramedics, who are trained to handle the most serious medical emergencies. One way or another, the whole county chips in for our paramedic service.

What’s this levy about?

This year the countywide EMS system was funded by about $7.3 million in revenue, but we’re expected to come up about $1 million short of covering costs by year’s end, and reserves will have dwindled under $300,000.

Passing the levy would increase the system’s annual revenue to $12.5 million for next year. A levy like this only lasts six years. Proponents’ projections say in that time it would not only solve the shortfall, but build up $10 million in reserves, while doing a few other things to bolster the local EMS.

What would the extra revenue pay for?

One big perk would be a fifth ALS ambulance for the county. Fire chiefs and others in support note that the county’s population has risen more than 20 percent since 2001, while the number of paramedic crews has remained the same, at four.

Salaries, training, equipment – it costs a lot to get an ambulance on the road. It adds up to roughly $1.3 million to train nine paramedics, buy one ALS rig, and purchase equipment. Then it costs $1.5 million per year to operate in this county, according to a work group of fire chiefs, city and county leaders, and union reps who proposed this levy.

So how much more would the levy cost me, the taxpayer?

Exactly 29.5 cents per $1,000 of property value. So if you own a house valued at $300,000, you would pay another $88.50 per year, or about an extra quarter per day.

Around the state, the median EMS levy is 44 cents per $1,000. However, that doesn’t take into account property values, or what it funds – ALS? BLS? Both? – or other sources of revenue. In Whatcom County, a local sales tax covers about one-third of the current cost. This levy would be a new tax, on top of the other taxes.

Wait – how much do we pay for EMS services right now?

This year the money pool was fed by four streams of revenue:

▪ $2.5 million from user fees, i.e., the bill for an ambulance ride.

▪ $2.3 million from a local sales tax increase approved by voters over a decade ago, at 10 cents per $100 purchase.

▪ $1.4 million from the Whatcom County general fund.

▪ $1.1 million from the City of Bellingham general fund.

Reserves are currently covering the $1 million shortfall.

Passing the levy would get rid of contributions from the two general funds. Proponents say that’s good because the levy would be a steady source of income for its duration, and would make balancing the budget ever so slightly easier for local governments.

Where would this fifth ALS ambulance be stationed?

That hasn’t been decided. Officials want to do more research before deciding where to put it. Regardless, the fifth ambulance would not run full time until 2022.

OK, what else would this levy do?

It would hire an administrator for the system. He or she would oversee contracts, equipment, and become the main point of contact for planning.

There are other benefits in the budget – expanding a community paramedic program to help frequent 911 callers, and getting all fire districts on a common software platform – that you can read about at whatcomcountyems.com.

So who opposes the levy, and why?

The work group’s report concedes that “although common wisdom, experience and response suggest Whatcom County needs a fifth ALS unit, data to confirm the exact timing was unavailable.” Voters should wait until more research has been done, before approving a tax increase, said Brett Bonner, a regional manager of Saturna Capital who is leading a political action committee in opposition to the levy.

“To us at this point, they don’t have a firm plan, and their own data shows that they don’t need a new unit yet,” he said.

According to a report by consultants at JR Henry, Whatcom County’s four ALS crews respond to about 6.25 calls per day, below the national average of 8.4 per day. Six years from now, we’re still projected to be below the national average. Thirteen calls per day is considered optimal, while about 3.5 is poor use. This information is in the work group’s report, on page 46.

Then why do supporters recommend another ambulance?

This is far more complicated than a single number, and the data here – called Unit Hour Utilization – has all kinds of variables, said Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Newbold, who served on the work group. (To be clear, Newbold is not campaigning for or against the levy, in accordance with state law.)

For example, you have to consider: How was the data collected? How much data comes from a public versus a for-profit ambulance system? How much time must the paramedics spend training? Is the population dense or spread out? What’s the geography? If there’s an ALS call up on Mount Baker, for example, it could take an ALS ambulance out of commission for a couple hours.

As the report says: “Further research on the applicability of this metric is needed.”

Are there other arguments against the levy?

The county executive, Jack Louws, has suggested that other public safety needs, like building a new jail, should be higher priorities right now. Voters shot down a tax increase to pay for a new jail last year.

Also, a tax that builds up this much in reserves seems over the top, Bonner said. Guidelines from the Government Finance Officers Association, cited on page 20 of the work group’s report, suggest having three months’ worth of reserves. Six years from now, that would be roughly $3 million, but the work group suggested having $10 million on hand.

The Whatcom County GOP has endorsed a vote of no, too, saying a six-year levy is a non-permanent and a “somewhat strange” source of funding. The party argues for a permanent, long-term solution that is budgeted by local government. The local Republican Party warns the $10 million surplus could turn into a “slush fund to be used by unions to demand pay raises and benefits at the expense of taxpayers.”

Why do supporters see a need for $10 million in reserves?

It’s enough to run the system for about a year, and according to proponents that’s a responsible amount of breathing room for such a critical operation. A year’s worth of reserves is how much King County keeps on hand. The extra money would be helpful in case, say, another levy fails six years from now, and the county had to scramble for funding.

Why would this levy only last six years?

That gives voters a chance to decide if the levy works well. Once it expires, voters would likely be asked to approve another levy, which would be tailored for needs beyond 2022.

“You could argue that a permanent levy is more stable with guaranteed dollars,” Newbold said. “But if you’re doing it right, there should be no concern about continued funding.”

Would this affect BLS service at all?

Since it’s an interlocked tiered system, yes, there would be a kind of ripple effect, but in the big picture this is mostly about funding ALS services.

Would this affect how much it costs for an ambulance ride?

Nope. You can expect to pay up to $950 for ALS transport, or $590 for BLS transport, plus $15 per mile, at least in Bellingham. Other fire districts set their own BLS fees.

So who is in support?

PeaceHealth, the local Democratic Party, local fire unions, local fire districts, the Lummi Indian Business Council, and others. See endorsements at emssaveslives.com.

How much has been raised in campaign contributions?

The “yes” side raised $82,000 as of Friday, Oct. 21, through the group EMS Saves Lives. The “no” side took in $4,345, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

To pass, does it just need over half the vote?

No, it needs at least 60 percent of people to vote yes.

Why city employees can't campaign for or against levies was updated Oct. 24, 2016.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb