North County Outlook - Community newspaper serving Marysville, Arlington, Tulalip, Smokey Point, Lakewood

Residents express concerns about proposed ambulance fee

 


On Monday, July 2, Arlington City Council took input on a proposed Ambulance Utility Fee of $15 that could, if approved, be added to residents’ monthly utility bill to help cover the costs of Emergency Medical Services.

About 50 residents attended the public hearing with about 20 people expressing concern about the new fee, which is "intended to ensure that public safety is sustainably funded and staffed to support the community,” according to city documents.

Members of the public expressed concern about adopting this new fee without a vote of the people. Some mentioned the impact on those with limited fixed income and others wondered why the EMS Property Tax Levy did not cover the costs of ambulance services.

Two residents expressed support of the new fee.

“It’s a small price to pay for the services we get,” said Holly Sloan Buchanan.

Paul Ellis, city administrator, explained the history of how this proposal came about, including the four-year study exploring ways to save money on EMS services to get the ambulance budget out of the red. City officials met regularly through those years with Marysville and other neighboring fire districts exploring the possibility of saving money through a regional fire authority (RFA). When it became apparent earlier this year that the RFA would not happen, city staff started to look at the fee as a more sustainable funding model, Ellis explained.

The city’s EMS Property Tax Levy collects about $3 million — the maximum amount allowed by the state. The city also collects transport fees from jurisdictions that contract with the city of Arlington for services, and from Medicare and Medicaid, but the payments do not cover the actual cost of services.

The total annual cost of EMS services is about $4.6 million, with a shortfall of more than $1.5 million, Ellis said.

The current EMS levy rate is 38 cents per $1,000 of property value and it brings in about $3 million, said City Clerk Kristin Banfield.

“If we were to ask voters to lift the levy to $0.50 and it passed, it would generate approximately $325,000.

“This still leaves a gap of $1.2 million that would have to be addressed in other ways,” Banfield said.

Council discussed this at length and felt that it would be better to do something that wasn’t piecemeal that could be confusing to the taxpayers.

In recent years, ambulance services have been borrowing regularly from the city’s General Fund, impacting other programs and services, especially police and fire.

It’s commonly agreed the city needs more police. By freeing up the General Fund, the new fee addresses concerns around call response times and services for homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

Once the fee is approved, recruitment of two new police officers will begin immediately, according to documents. Council has committed to hiring three fire personnel and one additional police officer, a police services officer and a domestic violence coordinator, over the next three years.

According to Ellis, the Ambulance Utility Fee has proven to be a sustainable way to support and grow public safety in communities across Washington state. Revenues from the new fee will go directly into the EMS fund and under state law must be specifically used for EMS purposes. The new fee would apply to all single family homes, multi-family units and businesses within city limits.

Low income seniors and disabled residents would be eligible for a 40 percent discount of the fee.

After public input at the July 2 meeting, City Council voted 4 to 3 to hold off on the vote to consider the input in further discussion. Council members Jan Schuette, Jesica Stickles and Debora Nelson did not agree with waiting on the vote because they want to start recruiting more police and firefighters as soon as possible.

Schuette expressed her concerns about putting off the vote. “The ambulance has been operating in the red for eight years,” she said.

A list of answers to all questions was expected to be released on Monday, July 9. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the issue on Monday, Aug. 9.

 

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