After three hours of contentious comment, a public hearing and procedural debate, the Ocean Shores City Council established an ambulance utility to bolster emergency medical services funding and free it from the city’s general fund.
By a 4-1 vote with one abstention and one council member absent, the result will be a $7.48-per-month charge on all property owners connected to city sewer service. The amount will free up more than $500,000 from the general fund to pay for EMS costs and allow the city to acquire a new ambulance while building back depleted reserves.
The council, however, later voted down (5-1) an attempt to restore about $50,000 cut from this year’s overall city budget that eliminated the city’s surf rescue team, a choice made late in the budget process by Mayor Crystal Dingler after the council imposed strict budget guidelines for the cash-strapped city.
The new monthly fee for the ambulance utility is similar to how Hoquiam, Montesano and Aberdeen pay for EMS services, the council and about 75 citizens in attendance were told.
After studying the issue the past month in preparation for Monday night’s public hearing, the council clearly was divided over the issue, which was proposed by Steve Ensley, the city’s finance director. Councilwoman Ginny Hill, said to oppose the utility proposal, was absent from the meeting with the flu and there were several attempts to hold off on the vote until she or a full council of seven could be in attendance to vote.
Many citizens urged the council to put the utility proposal to a public vote or live with the current budget even if it meant living with cutbacks. They view the utility as a “backdoor tax or fee.”
“I do know that other communities have done other things to meet their needs,” said resident Randy Peck. “I urge you not to approve this new ‘living cost’ without the people’s vote… . All of this is happening because no one has been able to say ‘no.’ ”
David Robbins, general manager of the Grey Gull hotel, presented the council with a petition from the local lodging businesses opposing the ambulance utility. He noted that occupancy rates have plunged in recent years because of the recession, and that even in August, the best month of the year, the occupancy rate was just above 58 percent.
“We are facing as many increases as you are as a city and we understand that,” Robbins said. “Minimum wage is going up, the electrical bill is going up, we know property taxes are going up. We don’t have much more to give.”
But other citizens support the idea to not only fully fund emergency services in the future but to begin to improve the city’s overall financial position, which has been sharply criticized in recent state audits.
“If you do this for three years, you will have your $1 million in reserves, and the city will be solvent,” said Wilma Spike. “Without that, the city is bare bones.”
Ultimately, efforts to delay a vote were defeated and council members John Lynn, Dan Overton, Randy Scott and Jackie Fara voted in favor of the utility, while John Schroeder voted against it and Ed Engel abstained.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the city, 100 percent of the ambulance utility revenue will be used for emergency medical services. Before the amount of the monthly fee was set, a higher figure was proposed that included $62,242 in funding for part of the salary for an assistant fire chief/fire marshal. Three years ago, the position of Fire Chief was eliminated as a budget move.
City statistics show the Ocean Shores Fire Department responded to 1,722 emergency medical incidents in 2012, and that EMS calls have increased 22 percent in the past 10 years from a total of 1,401 in 2002.
“The ambulance utility will help to insure the retention of our ability to deliver the high level of patient care our citizens have come to expect,” said a city fact sheet promoting the utility.
City residents last year narrowly passed an EMS levy lift, that will provide $535,333 for emergency services in 2013. However, the 2013 EMS budget also included $522,150 from the general fund. Another fact sheet prepared by Ensley said the ambulance utility will “protect the EMS fund from the ups and downs of the economy and free up monies in the general fund for promotions necessary to build reserves.”
Ensley told the council in a study session Monday that any excess money from the fees collected to fund the utility would go directly to reserves.
Ensley compiled figures that showed that Montesano ($17.12), Hoquiam ($11.83) and Aberdeen ($21.85) all have ambulance utility fees.
“In addition, many of them have also had levies, in the form of special levies or EMS levy lid lifts,” Ensley said of other cities in Grays Harbor County. “Everybody is fighting this problem,” Ensley said. “It is a dilemma everywhere to pay for EMS.”
The only other ways to finance the emergency services, he told council members, is a special levy ballot to raise an additional 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, which is would bring the city to its maximum amount under law. That would require a 60 percent majority vote of city residents. The city could also raise its general property tax resources to the maximum allowable, but that would require a 50 percent ballot approval.
Ensley indicated raising fees would not be practical, pointing out Ocean Shores already has the highest billing rates in the county for services, “and we are billing and collecting all available funds on a timely basis.” Additional charges for non-transport calls “would generate negligible revenue and/or cost savings.”
Several residents said good ambulance and EMS service in Ocean Shores has proved to save lives, especially with a large retired population.
Arnold Samuels reported he had been taken by ambulance to Grays Harbor Community Hospital only the night before when he began to feint after feeling dizzy.
“Within three minutes EMS was here. I can’t believe how quick and efficient they work,” he said. “They took care of me in the ambulance with great efficiency and took me to the hospital… . .Without EMS, and efficient EMS, your life is at stake.”
Bill Vandenbush of North Beach Community TV, his voice strained as he recounted six recent ambulance trips he’d endured recently, urged the council to take action and do their jobs rather than put the ambulance utility off for a later public vote.
“I don’t want to have to keep voting. I voted. I voted for you to make the decisions,” Vandenbush told council members. “The decisions are tough, and they are hard, and there are people who are going to disagree with you. But we chose you to run the city and make the tough decisions that make this city run — that are going to do the best thing in the long run for this city, whether we agree on it or not.”
Mayor Dingler agreed, although she did not have to cast a deciding vote. She clearly was in favor of the council’s ultimate decision and was ready to approve it if there had been a tie on the council. She did break a 3-3 tie to table the issue for a later meeting, noting the city has been discussing the issue since October and that a delay would be “kicking the can down the road again.”
“We are looking at a real problem in three years,” she said. “If we don’t do something this year, it’s a bigger problem next year.”
ENSLEY TO STAY
Ensley, who had announced his retirement earlier in the fall, announced Monday that he had rescinded his letter of retirment.
“I appreciate that and its going to be a teriffic thing for our community,” said Mayor Crystal Dingler. “I was thrilled. It makes a huge difference to us.”