Voters living in the unincorporated areas of Pasco are essentially being asked to make what could be a life or death decision with their wallets.
Franklin Fire District 3 officials are seeking taxpayer support on the Nov. 6 ballot for a new EMS levy to pay for ambulance services provided by the Pasco Fire Department or risk losing the service.
"The fact is we will no longer have advanced life support service to our citizens, and will have something much less than that, if this doesn't pass," said Tom Hughes, the fire district's chairman.
If the levy doesn't pass, the fire district likely will only be able to offer basic life support service, he said.
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The six-year levy costs 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $36 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home. The levy is expected to generate about $300,000 in revenue each year, which would be used to pay for the increased cost of the ambulance service that's being charged by the city of Pasco.
The fire district, which covers 120 square miles -- including the "doughnut hole" area and rural areas north of Pasco -- has relied on the Pasco Fire Department to provide ambulance service to its residents since the mid-1980s.
Firefighters in the district respond in an engine to assist Pasco crews when a medical emergency is called out, but the district doesn't run its own ambulances.
The district contracts for the ambulance service and is paying about $30,000 this year, Hughes said.
The city of Pasco, earlier this year, had to raise its cost to provide ambulance service to residents, and officials say the contract cost for the fire district has to be increased to be equitable.
For 2013, the fire district's cost are going up to $90,000 and will be doubled to $180,000 in 2014, Hughes said.
"We just can't afford to pay that bill. We can't afford the $90,000, much less the $180,000," he said. "If the EMS levy doesn't pass, we're not going to be able to afford to contract with Pasco."
The fire district has never asked citizens before to pay for an EMS levy, he said. By law, officials could have asked for a maximum 50 cents per $1,000 levy, but Hughes said the fire commissioners "didn't want to tax our citizens any more than we needed to maintain services."
If the levy is approved, the fire district will have enough to pay Pasco's contract and reimburse the district for about half the cost it's currently spending on EMS services, including medical services training for firefighters.
Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear said $2.9 million was budgeted this year for its ambulance service, but that cost will probably come in around $3.3 million at the end of the year because of increased costs and calls.
The 2013 draft budget includes a request for $3.6 million for the ambulance service, he said.
Pasco has three fire stations and ambulances staffed with paramedics 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because of maintenance and repairs, the department owns five ambulances so it can ensure there are three ambulances available at all times, he said.
The city raises about $1.1 million from the $5.85-a-month ambulance utility tax charged to Pasco households, he said. City officials raised the ambulance utility rate this year from $3.60 a month.
"The push back from the council is we need to be equitable," Gear said about increasing the contract cost for the fire district.
Hughes said Pasco has provided excellent service to the fire district's residents for decades and he's hoping the EMS levy is supported so they can continue that service.
"I know raising taxes is a tough thing to do in Franklin County, but if you look at the (criminal) justice tax that just went through, it's obvious when there's a desperate need, people will support it," Hughes said. "Pasco is the best game in town. ... We don't want to lose that amount of service."
Fire district officials have checked with private ambulance companies to see what it would cost for ambulance service, and the district just doesn't have enough EMS calls to make it worth the cost for the private companies, he said.
If the EMS levy doesn't pass, "at the first of the year we're going to be scrambling to find some kind of service," Hughes said.
A 60 percent supermajority is needed for approval.
Taxpayers with questions about the levy can contact fire district officials online at www.fcfd3.org or email Hughes at email@example.com.