Pasco seeks flexibility in using tax dollars

Pasco would like the option of using some of $420,000 it pays for the city's ambulance service to fill vacant police officer positions.

Kennewick, Pasco and Richland are asking state legislators to remove a portion of state law that requires them to use a set amount of general tax dollars to pay for city ambulance operations.

A proposed bill would eliminate the requirement that cities pay at least 70 percent of the general tax dollars that they spent for ambulance services in 2004.

The rule means Pasco must spend at least $420,000 from general taxes on ambulance services, said City Manager Gary Crutchfield.

"We've got vacant police officer positions that I'd like to fill," said Crutchfield, who testified about Senate Bill 5493 in Olympia on Monday.

The amount of general fund dollars used for ambulance service was high in 2004 because anything the city couldn't obtain from ambulance transport fees had to be paid with general tax dollars, Crutchfield said.

The Legislature gave cities the option of creating an ambulance utility and using a utility fee to help pay for the service after a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling that an earlier method for tacking an ambulance fee onto utility bills was an illegal tax.

Arborwood Place Apartments, a 188-unit complex in east Kennewick, had challenged collection of the fee.

Only about a dozen Washington cities provide ambulance service, including Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, said Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, one of House Bill 1596's sponsors. The bill would give cities a little relief and flexibility, he said.

Under current law, if cities couldn't afford the minimum subsidy, they would have to shut down their ambulance services, said Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said, "It just gives the discretion to the city on managing their budget."

Delvin, R-Richland, said Pasco asked him to sponsor the "good little government bill."

In the Tri-Cities, Richland has the highest requirement at $550,000.

Richland Fire Chief Grant Baynes said Richland hasn't discussed decreasing that. But giving the city council the option is important, especially with the tight economy, he said.

Without the utility fee of $3.16 per month, Baynes said Richland residents would be paying the nonresident rate for ambulance rides. The utility fee allows the city to offer residents a discounted rate, he said.

Richland's transport fees are about $608 per ride for residents and $912 for nonresidents, with a $10.10 per mile charge.

Kennewick would like the flexibility of having its city council, not the state, decide how the city uses general tax dollars, said City Manager Marie Mosley.

The council currently allocates $481,000 from general taxes to pay for ambulance services, Mosley said. That's 100 percent of the city's general tax subsidy in 2004.

Just because Kennewick could reduce that amount doesn't mean the council would, she said, but the flexibility to do so is important.

Kennewick's monthly ambulance utility fee is $3.12, she said. Transport fees are $578 for residents and $867 for nonresidents, both with a $10 per mile charge.

If the bill passes, the Pasco City Council may consider reducing the general tax amount used for ambulance services, Crutchfield said.

Its monthly ambulance utility fee is $3.60 and is part of city utility bills, he said. Decreasing the general tax total could prompt the city to raise the monthly fee to $5 or $5.50.

Any change in fees would go to a public hearing before a council decision, he said.

Pasco residents pay $660 per ride and nonresidents pay $990 per ride, both with a $9 per mile fee.

Delvin said he doesn't expect the bill will have any problems passing. The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on it today.

Nealey said he has been told by the House committee chairman that the bill is likely to pass out of committee this week or early next week. The deadline for most bills to be passed out of committee is Feb. 21.