Franklin Fire District 3, citizens mull ambulance options

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldDecember 13, 2012 

Many questions remain unanswered for residents in Franklin Fire District 3 who are about to lose their ambulance service, but the one thing that's clear is the fire district can't afford to run its own ambulances.

So, fire commissioners and Chief Les Litzenberger turned to the citizens Wednesday night and asked them what they wanted to do since the district's contract with the Pasco Fire Department is going to end in about two weeks.

What appeared to be the two most realistic options were to try to run an EMS levy again -- the first one received a 60 percent "no" vote in November -- or seek help from Franklin County commissioners who could create an ambulance taxing district.

"It's going to take, I think, an emergency situation for the county commissioners to create an ambulance district," Fire Commissioner Tom Hughes told about four dozen people who attended the meeting at Chiawana High School.

State law allows a county that creates an EMS district to set and collect fees to pay for that service. The fire district as an agency, however, can't ask commissioners to take that step, but Hughes said private citizens can.

"And I intend to do that," he said.

Pasco has been providing ambulance service to the fire district, which covers 150 square miles around the city and about four square miles inside in an area called the "doughnut hole," since the late '60s or early '70s.

Currently, the fire district pays about $30,000 a year to Pasco for the service, which includes taking patients in ambulances to hospitals.

But, the cost to provide that service has gone up, and when Pasco city officials decided to raise the rates for its citizens, they said the fire district needed to pay a comparable rate, said Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear.

Residents, however, failed to approve an EMS levy that would have cost homeowners 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Litzenberger said he thinks residents didn't have all the facts when they voted and running it again could have a different outcome. He's hoping to form a citizens advisory committee with some of the residents at Wednesday's meeting.

Fire officials also said they think annexation issues faced by some residents in the "doughnut hole" may have created confusion for voters. The animosity of some residents who don't want to become a part of the city was clear Wednesday.

"It would be a cold day in hell before I would sign any contract with Pasco for anything," said resident Rick Dunbar. "They have no interest in serving us. They're doing everything they can to bully and push us into joining the city. ... I don't see a way for us to win and work this out."

Hughes, however, explained that the Pasco Fire Department provides the best advance life support service in the area, and finding a way to pay for the contracted service is the best option, regardless of people's feelings against the government.

Right now, volunteer firefighters respond to medical calls but rely on Pasco for paramedics and ambulance service.

Budget estimates for various options were presented to residents. Two options were running its own ambulance service or staying with Pasco but having no new funding source, but both showed the fire district losing money each year and eventually ending up bankrupt.

The fire district is required only to provide fire protection, officials said, but it has been covering the cost of the EMS service through the property tax money it receives each year for fire service.

Hughes said he prefers the option where the county creates the ambulance district and a fee paid by each household because it would be more fair than the EMS levy, where the owner of a more expensive home pays more.

Officials said it could take a year for county commissioners to get that system set up -- if it's something they decided they want to.

"That process is something you would want to initiate early and fast, because it's kind of the smart thing to do," said Elvin Trusley, who's lived in the fire district for about eight years. "This other stuff we're talking about seems like a Band-Aid."

Nothing was decided Wednesday, but fire district officials said they are negotiating with Pasco for a one-year contract to give them the time to figure out what to do next.

"We didn't want to leave our residents in the lurch," Hughes said. "We couldn't believe residents didn't want EMS service when they didn't approve the levy."

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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