In 1979, four visionary fire chiefs came together to ensure the public safety needs for our community for generations to come. Deloy Little of Camas, Darrell Alder of Washougal, Bob Holland of Clark County Fire District 1, and Clyde Webberley of Clark County Fire District 9, signed a document that established what has come to be known as the “Three Parties Agreement.”
This agreement provided for the funding of a paramedic transport service in the East Clark County area. The money was to be used for hiring personnel, buying equipment, and the ongoing emergency medical training needs of the involved departments.
The original Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy rate established in 1979 in Camas was 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. After 28 years with no increase, it was changed to 35 cents in 2007.
On Aug. 7, 2012, Camas voters will be asked to approve a levy increase to 46 cents. This would be an increase of $33 per year to the owner of a $300,000 home. The necessity of this increase is based on several factors. The first and foremost are simply economics and the cost of providing a top notch paramedic service. The value of 25 cents in 1979, if simply increased for inflation, is worth over 70 cents today. That means if our EMS levy had kept up with the changing value of a penny over the past 33 years, it would need to be over 70 cents per $1,000 of valuation today. The average cost of an ambulance in 1979 was around $30,000. Today they cost $150,000.
At the same time, emergency call volume increased some 336 percent in that 33-year time span, and almost 20 percent in just the past six years. Add in decreased property valuations during the recession and lowered federal Medicare reimbursements and it becomes clear that a levy increase is necessary. Keeping the levy rate at 35 cents would result in a $2.9 million dollar system shortfall in six years. This is simply unsustainable.
I’m told there is a running joke in our department among my personnel that if somebody finds a thin copper wire laying on the floor in the station, a firefighter comments that the chief found a penny and tried to stretch it as far as he could. My appreciation of the humor aside, it highlights an important part of my management philosophy when it comes to the spending of public funds. The merger with Washougal has saved nearly $50,000 in less than a year and led to increased efficiencies between both agencies. Staffing has doubled in some stations while response times have also decreased. Overtime and vacation concessions from the firefighter’s union, lower than expected decline in assessed valuation, increases in ambulance billing revenue, and investment in the system from Washougal, have rounded out a spectacular year for the department.
The Camas EMS fund was projected to be over $300,000 in the red by the end of 2011. Due to these changes, we ended the year around $55,000 in the red.
The fiscal year 2012, with the use of some reserve funds, is projected to balance with no red ink at all.
The fact that our EMS levy has managed to stay far below the rate of inflation for years is, I believe, a testament to our fiscal stewardship. While we continually look for more ways to save money, there are some areas we simply cannot cut. Training programs cannot be cut back further due to federal and state requirements. The training budget is already at the bare minimum to keep us legally compliant. We have ambulances that are at times literally falling apart because we often do not have the funds to repair them. The department has also lost four positions to attrition in the past six years since the last EMS levy was renewed. If we lose any more positions, we would likely be forced to remove ambulances from service or overtime costs would skyrocket.
We are stretched thin, but the dedication of our staff never wavers, recently garnering the department recognition as one of the top five paramedic services in the United States and Canada in cardiac arrest survival rates. That means if you suffer a cardiac arrest, there are only four safer communities in the entire country to have it in than Camas. That’s an amazing statistic that demonstrates the value of the community’s investment in our system.
Asking the voters to approve a levy increase is never popular, even in good times. At 46 cents our levy is still only “middle of the pack” compared to other regional EMS levy rates. It is responsible, conservative, and will ensure the financial viability of our system for years to come.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please e-mail me directly at email@example.com. I would also be happy to send copies of our levy spreadsheets to anyone upon request.
Nick Swinhart is the fire chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.