Richland Mayor John Fox recounted having to call 911 for an ambulance once when a family member fell and was unconscious for several minutes.
Because the relative didn't get taken to a hospital, he did not get a bill. He questioned, however, whether people should get billed when a city-funded ambulance shows up for an emergency.
Fox's question was part of a recent discussion by council members about whether to raise the rate residents pay for the city's ambulance utility.
Residents now pay $3.16 a month as part of their city utility bill, but Finance Manager Dan Underwood told the council the ambulance utility has a looming $769,000 deficit if rates aren't raised this year.
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The ambulance utility finished out 2011 about $318,000 in the red, he said.
Underwood is proposing an increase in the monthly rate to $5.49 starting June 1, which he said is in line with proposals being considered in Pasco and Kennewick.
Underwood also suggested raising the fee a person pays when he or she is transported by ambulance to $660 per trip for residents and $990 for nonresidents, plus $10 a mile.
The current rates are $608 for residents, $912 for others, plus $10.10 a mile.
People who call 911 and have an ambulance bring paramedics to their home -- but who aren't taken to a hospital -- aren't charged any fee under the current rate structure.
The options Underwood presented to the council earlier this week didn't propose to change that, but Fox said maybe the city should.
In response to a question from Mayor Pro Tem David Rose, City Manager Cindy Johnson said there are people who attempt to use the city's ambulance service as a taxi to get to the hospital, but they typically are told they cannot unless there is an emergency.
Councilman Brad Anderson noted this isn't the first Richland utility to come forward this year and say a rate increase is needed to avoid a deficit. The city also is looking at raising electricity rates to catch up to rising costs.
"What was it that brought it to this?" Anderson said.
Underwood said city staff have known for about three years that ambulance rates would need to come up, but had several unknown variables -- such as plans for an additional fire station that would require an even greater increase.
"Whenever we set rates, the argument is why didn't you come to us sooner," he said. "I don't like to raise rates until I absolutely have to."
Underwood said he plans to bring a rate study to the council in the "near future."