City Council approves ambulance utility fee to curb mountain EMS costs, dedicate more funds to public safety needs – Updated

ARLINGTON – A $15 ambulance utility fee to slash mounting EMS costs and devote more general fund money for public safety needs was approved by the City Council Monday.

The new fee will appear on city residential and business customers’ utility bills starting in September.

The council had the option to consider a $10 monthly fee presented by City Administrator Paul Ellis that would not have met all immediate needs, vote against the fee altogether and hand the issue back to staff for further research.

The council and staff spent over four years weighing options to get EMS funding and public safety services on a more sustainable track, including forming its own regional fire authority or putting a property tax measure on the ballot.

With the fee in place, the city can move to hire two new police officers, the first added positions since 2003 that aren’t the result of attrition. In addition, three fire personnel and a third police officer will be hired over the next three years, or sooner if grant funding comes through.

Other operational needs met by the fee would include a grant-funded community resource paramedic, domestic violence coordinator for the prosecutor’s office, equipment replacement, fire inspection and fire marshal services, and continued funding for the city’s embedded social worker if the grant expires.

Arlington’s fee would be a restricted fund in the city budget, so monies couldn’t be used for other purposes, he said.

The council added language to their passage of the fee to require quarterly updates starting in September that specifies equipment and manpower purchases, and distribution of funds.

A July 2 public hearing on the fee drew a huge crowd and numerous letters and emails mostly opposed to the fee.

The council voted 4-3 to table the issue to explore more options.

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ARLINGTON – A proposed ambulance utility fee to curb escalating EMS costs and free up city funds for public safety needs is back before the City Council Monday.

If passed, the new fee would begin appearing on residents’ and business owners’ monthly utility bills in September.

City staff are recommending a $15 monthly fee. Council members could opt for that amount or another rate, vote against the fee altogether, or remand the issue back to staff for further research.

Arlington’s fee would be a restricted fund in the city budget, so monies couldn’t be used for other purposes, he said.

If the council adopts the fee, the city would move to hire two police officers. In addition, three fire personnel and a third police officer would be hired over the next three years and possibly by next year if grant funding is awarded.

Other operational needs met by the fee would include a grant-funded community resource paramedic, domestic violence coordinator for the prosecutor’s office, equipment replacement, fire inspection and fire marshal services, and continued funding for the city’s embedded social worker if the grant expires.

“We need more public safety staff to keep up with the growing and aging community, and the rising calls for service,” Mayor Barb Tolbert said, adding the fee also addresses concerns around call response times and increases in homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.”

A public hearing on July 2 drew a large crowd and numerous letters and emails mostly against the fee. The council voted 4-3 to table the matter.

Several ratepayers said they wanted it to be put to a public vote, questioned whether ambulance service is a bonafide utility, suggested private ambulance service as a cost-cutting alternative, and questioned how ambulance service costs relate to Arlington’s inability to fully staff police and fire services at sustainable levels.

“This fee option is the least impact financially to the citizens, and provides at least five years of sustainability,” City Administrator Paul Ellis said.

City officials compiled a summary sheet to answer the questions from the public hearing, and shared it with the community.

For ratepayers who questioned why the matter isn’t being put to a public vote, state law allows for approval of new and increased taxes, but provides no such mechanism for fees. State law also states that ambulance service can be considered a utility.

As to why contracting with a private ambulance company wasn’t pursued, city officials responded that private service is not available north of Everett as a 9-1-1 EMS option, but if it were to develop it would be considered.

While it may seem odd that an ambulance fee appears on water and sewer utility bills, it is the city’s attempt to keep them all on a single statement to save on printing and mailing costs. If the city billed separately, it would cost ratepayers an extra $50,000 a year.

The City Council and staff have spent over four years weighing options to get EMS funding and public safety services on a more sustainable track, ranging from forming its own regional fire authority or a property tax ballot measure, to tightening internal controls.

Ellis said Arlington cannot continue to subsidize EMS with general fund money that should be used to meet essential public safety goals.

The total cost in 2017 was $6.2 million, with $3 million for fire services and $3.2 million for EMS. While a near 50-50 split strictly on dollar amounts, the actual workload doesn’t match the allocation, with 75 percent of the workload involving EMS calls, Ellis said.

If costs are distributed based on workload, the real cost of EMS service is $4.6 million vs $1.5 million, he added.

However, revenues from an EMS levy capped by state law at 50 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, transport fees and contracts for services with other agencies are only generating $3.1 million, leaving an operating subsidy of $1.5 million, he continued.

Even with these funding mechanisms there is still a shortfall of $1.5 million to cover current costs. To fill that gap, the city has used its general fund to ensure that services are fully funded.

Ellis said the city has tried many ways to address EMS funding shortfalls and address gaps in funding.

For example, the city restructured command in police and fire, increased contract costs for adjacent fire districts, used grants to hire two new officers, deployed an embedded social worker, created a police volunteer program and other efforts.

Ellis pointed out that several other cities across Washington have ambulance utility fees.

Aberdeen charges $22.80, Lynden $11.99 and Port Angeles $8.66, for example.

Arlington provides water, sewer and stormwater services to about 8,000 customers.

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