Emergency Medical Services Levy is on the November ballot – what will it cost?

In November, Whatcom County voters will decide if property taxes in the county should be increased to renew (and increase) the County’s Emergency Medical Services Levy. 

At first glance, this might look like an easy decision as citizens need EMS services and these types of ballot measures usually pass without much opposition as the first one did in 2016 with 60% of the county’s vote.  But the renewed levy will be on the ballot at a proposed 29.5 cent rate which is a roughly 50% increase coming at a time when many citizens and businesses continue to struggle with higher costs including increased housing prices.

Elected officials have struggled to produce a new rate for this levy that funds training, vehicles, staffing, and other additional resources required by EMS personnel in the County. The County Council has spent the summer going back and forth with County EMS officials and the Bellingham City Council and Mayor on what constitutes a “fair rate” to ask voters to approve this fall. 

The EMS levy was last (and for the first time) approved by voters in 2016 as a six-year levy at 29.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.  The rate dropped almost ten cents over the years because more money is now being collected as valuations rose and more real estate was developed.

The County Council originally proposed renewing the levy rate at 19.9 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. EMS officials have insisted that a rate of 29.5 cents would be the only suitable option for EMS to function in the County. They have claimed the lower/current tax rate would make it impossible to add more funding to life support units and would cause an end to community paramedic outreach programs. Additionally, the EMS budget now has a large surplus of funds that have built up over the years. EMS officials say that they use this financial cushion as protection if the levy fails one year.

Here is what you should know before voting in the General Election:

  • Members of a committee that have been working over the last couple of years to propose a new EMS levy and decide which services would be included, recommended a renewal at the “original rate” of 29.5 cents per $1,000.
  • If passed, the Emergency Services levy will cost County residents an additional $48 per year based on a $500,000 home evaluation for a total tax of $147.50 per year.
  • The levy needs a simple majority of 50% plus one to pass on November 8th.
  • The current rate produces about $8 million per year to fund EMS services, while the proposed rate of 29.5 cents would generate $13 million/year.
  • The County Council voted 5-1 (with Councilmember Ben Elenbaas voting against) in favor of placing the levy on the ballot though another councilmember, Kathy Kershner, has also expressed concern over the higher level and suggested keeping it at the 19.9 cents per $1000 level
  • The levy funds the training of new paramedics and the EMS portion of the countywide Community Paramedic Program that sends teams of medics and social workers to assist patients who frequently call 911 for simple medical needs.
  • A fifth paramedic ambulance should start operating later this year in Lynden, though there is some controversy about whether this will be funded out of the current levy as originally promised to voters or if new levy funds will now be used for this expansion (and if it will be used as an argument to vote for the renewed levy).

Those in favor of renewing the levy at this higher 29.5 cents per $1000 argue that:

  • “To continue providing the level of Emergency Services Whatcom County as come to expect, this EMS levy is essential… and is crucial to maintain staffing growth to cover the ever-rising requirements on the already stressed EMS system.”
  • The levy will provide “additional funding which goes to local fire departments…” as “ever-rising EMS response requests mixed with overhead costs have maxed out current funding.”
  • Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Hewett says that an almost 30-cent rate is necessary for EMS to function and said the reduced tax rate is below the amount needed to continue providing ambulances staffed with firefighter-paramedics and other medical services to all areas of the County. “There would just not be enough funding in there for us to be able to move forward with the services that we’re (providing) today and the plan for next year,” Hewett said.
  • “Whatcom County has one of the lowest levy rates comparatively.  Approval of this levy will ensure no matter where you live in the county you will continue having highly trained responders at your door when your family needs them.”

Those opposed to the levy and in particular the increased rate point out that:

  • EMS does not need a 50% increase as there is “enough reserve money to run the system without losing service. This tax increase won’t save more lives, it just grows bureaucracy!”
  • “This tax increase funds promotions and more administration, not the 5th medic unit we were promised and have paid for already.” 
  • “Demanding a 50% tax increase, when many families are struggling and housing is unaffordable, isn’t good government. Paramedics deserve support, but the current EMS Levy ballooned costs $4 million (40+%) in administration and bureaucracy without adding any new paramedic ambulance services. The Levy generates $3+ million in surplus every year, building a massive $20+ million reserve in only five years. EMS reserves are so high, that County Council gifted $5 million to fire districts, but we never got our 5th medic unit.” 
  • “The current annual surpluses could even fund our 5th medic unit without raising taxes. Nobody will lose ambulance service by rejecting this unnecessary tax increase. A ‘No’ vote shocks the bureaucracy and EMS system back into a healthy rhythm, so it can come back effective and efficient for a vote next year.”