Op-Ed

EMS levy not necessary now for Whatcom County paramedic service

A paramedic with Whatcom Medic One wheels a gurney into Sea Mar Community Health Center in Bellingham in 2012. Whatcom County voters will be asked to pass a property tax levy to help pay for emergency medical services on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot. For a home valued at $300,000, the proposed six-year levy would add $88.50 per year to property taxes.
A paramedic with Whatcom Medic One wheels a gurney into Sea Mar Community Health Center in Bellingham in 2012. Whatcom County voters will be asked to pass a property tax levy to help pay for emergency medical services on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot. For a home valued at $300,000, the proposed six-year levy would add $88.50 per year to property taxes. The Bellingham Herald

Many of us have friends or family members who are firefighters or EMTs. They’re the first responders keeping our communities safe, and we should be thankful for their hard work. However, as much as we support EMS services, it’s also our duty as citizens to insist on financial accountability and wise governance. Proposition 1 is sorely lacking in specifics and sets an irresponsible precedent.

The EMS committee promoting the new tax published a report outlining the proposal. On Page 12 it says that our EMS ambulances are used less than the national average. What this means is that there’s actually capacity for our current service to handle more calls without sacrificing quality. For example, King County maintains a healthy ratio of one advanced life support ambulance per 75,000 people – a number that has worked well. Whatcom County currently has four ALS ambulances, and a population of roughly 200,000 people. Based on those numbers, we already have the ability to handle another 100,000 people without burdening our current system.

The EMS levy is an expensive wish list – not a plan.

But please, don’t take our word for it. Figures on Page 46 of their own report indicate that there’s no need for a new ambulance for at least another decade. On the same page, it shows that our ALS ambulances are only called out twice (on average) per eight-hour shift, which is not a heavy load by any stretch.

Care maintained

Voters should be reassured that they’ll continue to have excellent care without imposing a massive new tax. Sadly, the campaign to pass the tax has been mostly fear-based, preying on people’s horror that they might be unreachable in an emergency. But make no mistake: Our EMS coverage is excellent, and attempts to use fear to persuade are intellectually dishonest and not enlightening.

There’s no guarantee the money will be used to increase service. In fact, if history is any indicator, things aren’t looking so good. In 2005 an EMS sales tax was approved after officials told us they would add a new ambulance. We never got one, and we are left wondering: What happened to the money? Sadly, it seems their strategy is to dangle the prospect of a new ambulance in front of voters like a carrot to get the tax passed, and then hope they forget what was proposed.

No guarantees

Unfortunately, this proposal isn’t any better. One look at their official recommendations shows that none of the improvements are guaranteed to happen. All of the proposals have the word “recommend” or “explore” affixed to them. In other words, no one is being held accountable to actually follow through and ensure that the money is spent appropriately. The EMS levy is an expensive wish list – not a plan.

When a company asks investors for money to pay for new equipment or to expand their operations, it takes accountability very seriously. It puts forth a detailed plan, with exact timelines and numbers to gain the trust of its investors – and that’s a company with a profit motive. If anything, our EMS, which deals with lifesaving operations, should have an even higher standard of accountability, not a list of “recommendations” that may never come to fruition. It’s just not right to ask people to pay 300 percent more in taxes without a detailed plan to responsibly handle the money.

Government priorities

Besides being unneeded, this levy is a haphazard way to provide EMS funding. First, it should be the responsibility of the county and city governments to cover any operational funding shortfalls. This is what has been done for years, and it’s the right method because it helps to create a relationship of accountability between EMS districts and our respective governments. On the other hand, Proposition 1 bypasses that and simply raises taxes on the voters, allowing governments to abandon their responsibility to be involved in the EMS process.

Second, Proposition 1 isn’t designed to cover funding shortfalls. It’s a $47 million temporary funding package to pay for expansion, much of which is actually bureaucratic expense and will not result in better service. At the end of six years, we will either have to find another funding source, or pass another tax. Under a responsible proposal Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham would provide a predictable funding stream for basic operations, not an expiring levy that raises taxes by 300 percent.

When you’re voting, remember this: A new, separate tax levy is not necessary at this time, and we are not in a dire situation. We have room to grow and our EMS system is underutilized. Whatcom residents can sleep well knowing that they will be adequately taken care of in an emergency.

Samuel Sefzik is a student, speaker and activist who focuses on youth involvement in the political process. He wrote this for the Committee on Public Safety, a group of Whatcom residents promoting responsible, sustainable government.

EMS tax

Whatcom County voters will consider a six-year levy to fund emergency medical services on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot. For a home valued at $300,000, Whatcom County Proposition No. 2016-1 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 requires 60 percent approval to pass.

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