Camas officials propose EMS levy rate hike

City leaders hope to make the EMS fund solvent

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In an effort to help bring some long-term stability to a struggling emergency medical services fund, Camas city officials want to place a proposal for an EMS levy rate increase on the Aug. 7 ballot.

During a recent Camas City Council meeting, Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said the recommendation is to boost the rate from 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to 46 cents.

Under the proposed new rate, starting in 2013 the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $138 per year — a $33 increase.

According to Camas city officials’ calculations, at 46 cents the levy would put the EMS fund in the black by $237,130 by 2018. But keeping the rate at its current level would build a deficit of $2.9 million by 2018.

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said the process of figuring out the “right” levy amount has been challenging.

“This has been kind of painful for me,” he said. “We have just gone around and around to find out how to get the lowest number possible and still continue the current level of service.”

For more than 30 years, the local area EMS system has been supported through a partnership between Camas, Washougal and East County Fire and Rescue, with Camas being the lead agency. Through three separate voter approved tax levies, all three entities currently contribute to the system at the same rate.

The Camas levy expires at the end of this year, while the ECFR levy expires at the end of 2014.

Washougal taxpayers currently pay an EMS levy rate that totals 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Of that, 35 cents goes to fulfill the partnership obligations with Camas and ECFR, while 25 cents is used to maintain WFD minimum staffing levels.

Ten cents of Washougal’s 60 cent EMS levy will expire at the end of 2012, and Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said Monday the city isn’t likely to ask voters this year to renew. The remaining 50 cents of the EMS levy, which is at its statutory maximum, does not expire until the end of 2016.

Guard said Washougal will continue to fulfill its 35 cents per $1,000 obligation to Camas, and at some point at the end of 2012 or early 2013 the Washougal City Council will be making some decisions about whether it will go out to voters in 2013 or 2014 to ask for another levy lid lift to support EMS services. One major factor that will impact the decision is the amount of capacity left in the city’s overall tax rate.

“It is completely just a function of where that number comes in,” Guard said. “It will depend on whether it makes fiscal sense or not.”

Guard, who was part of the committee that worked on the Camas EMS levy rate proposal, said he understands the rationalization behind the need for the 11-cent increase being proposed by Camas.

“It’s a reality check of what the costs are to provide that service in today’s world,” he said. “It is an aggressive proposal to say ‘this is what we need to keep this service going at this level.’”

Funding from the EMS levies can be used for specific purposes including ambulance services, purchase and maintenance of ambulances, equipment and supplies, hiring and training of firefighter/paramedics and IV technicians and administrative support personnel and training programs. It also supports the EMT training and recertification of the volunteer programs in Washougal and ECFR.

In addition, through the EMS levy partnership, four advanced life support ambulances are staffed 24 hours a day at three different stations in Camas and Washougal.

In recent years, the EMS fund has struggled financially primarily due to a decrease in assessed values. In the presentation to Camas City Council, Swinhart said a levy rate increase is “unavoidable.”

“The EMS levy has not kept up with inflation and the overall cost of doing business,” he said. “While call volume has increased 336 percent since 1979, the levy rate has increased just 40 percent. If the EMS levy had simply kept up with the cost of inflation, it would need to be over 70 cents per $1,000.”

The figures presented during the Camas City Council meeting are based on a scenario where each of the three entities are contributing an amount equal to 46 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

“The system works when everyone is equal,” Higgins said. “This assumes everyone pays equally.”

But not all of the partners have bought in to the idea that more money is needed to support the EMS system.

ECFR Chief Scott Koehler said so far a majority of his governing commissioners have not warmed to the proposal.

Some of the reasons for this stance, he said, include the state of the economy, opposition to tax increases voiced by residents of the district, and the fact that ECFR’s current levy isn’t scheduled to expire for two more years.

Koehler said it could cost the district anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to put the issue on the ballot. It’s an expense its elected officials have said they aren’t willing to bear at this time.

“It would be our taxpayers funding the election,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like the best use of their money to ask them two years early whether they want higher taxes.”

Koehler said Swinhart is scheduled to talk to the ECFR Commission during its next meeting on Tuesday, April 3, at 7 p.m., at the Fern Prairie fire station.

“As partners in the ambulance service, I wanted them to hear directly from Camas,” Koehler said. “We’ll hear what Camas has to say; we’d like to understand their reasoning for the 11 cent increase. But for now, the consensus of the board is that we are going to wait and see what happens with the economy. In two years, we will have to go to the voters one way or another anyway.”

Swinhart said if any one of the partners decides not to put the issue in front of its voters, other options would need to be considered.

“We know the system works well,” he said. “I think the best evidence of this was the recent recognition of Camas as being one of the top five fire departments/paramedic services in the United States when it came to cardiac arrest survival. If there are further funding challenges due to one of the partners not asking their voters for an increase, we’ll have to explore outside-the-box methods to ensure continuation of service.”

On Monday, the Camas City Council will vote on an ordinance that would put the proposed increase in front of Camas voters on the Aug. 7 ballot.

Swinhart said if current service levels are to be maintained, there are few alternatives other than raising the levy rate.“We have the cheapest EMS levy in the county right now, and what I consider the highest level of service,” Swinhart said. “This can no longer be maintained.”