A resounding "no" vote by residents in Franklin Fire District 3 last week has fire officials now scrambling to figure out what, if any, ambulance service can be provided next year.
Residents in the fire district, which surrounds Pasco and includes the "doughnut hole" area in west Pasco, were asked to support a six-year EMS levy that would have generated about $300,000 each year and help pay for the ambulance service provided by Pasco.
"We did not get the votes," said Fire Commissioner Tom Hughes. "Right now we're looking at a couple of different things we can try. We have nothing, by far, cast in stone."
Just 1,186 residents cast "yes" votes for the levy, which would have cost 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $36 for the owner of a $100,000 home.
That compared with 1,822 votes, or 60 percent, against the levy. A 60 percent supermajority was needed for it to pass.
Hughes said he thinks trying to separate the EMS levy from the doughnut hole annexation issue with Pasco likely led to the failure.
"It just muddied the waters," he said. "People were just anti-Pasco."
The city of Pasco has provided ambulance service for decades to the 120 square miles covered by the fire district, but increased costs of running the ambulances led city officials to raise the price for the fire district's contract. The city also raised rates for city residents through their monthly ambulance utility fee.
This year, the district paid about $30,000, but next year's cost was going to triple to $90,000. In 2014, the fire district would have to pay $180,000, Hughes said.
"It would just be awfully difficult for us to cut our budget by 10 percent to get $90,000 this year and next year by 20 percent," he told the Herald. "Our ambulance contract with Pasco ... expires Jan. 1, 2013. Right now, after that date, we don't have anything."
The fire district gets about 200 to 250 medical calls each year, he said, making it difficult for any private company to run an ambulance service in the area. Fire commissioners contacted American Medical Response before the election, but they weren't interested, Hughes said.
"We're going to try real hard to make sure there's some type of ambulance service," he said. "We don't want to leave our residents in the lurch."
Fire district commissioners knew a rate change was pending next year, but Hughes said they didn't know how much it was going to cost until June or July. There just wasn't time to get a citizens' committee together to check the pulse of taxpayers, he said.
Among the options being considered is trying to run a levy again next year, he said.
"There's nothing off the table right now," Hughes said. "We're working right now just to try to see what we can do. We're still talking to Pasco. We're talking to other agencies. We're scrambling, trying to figure something out."
The fire district could also look to the state Legislature to change a law that allows rural fire districts that are served by an adjoining city-run ambulance to impose a monthly utility charge on its households equal to the fee imposed by the city.
The law, however, defines a rural fire district as having 10 or fewer people per square mile.
Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear previously told the Herald that there are no fire districts in the state next to incorporated cities that meet that definition.
Hughes said commissioners are researching the law, and so far have determined that no district has ever used it. But, he added, getting the population density requirement in the law changed to help fire district 3's situation would be a last resort, he said.
"The problem with that ... is that it looks like we're going to try to go around the backs of the voters," he said. "Not only are we reluctant to do that, so are our representatives."
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org