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Ambulance tax increase gets town's support

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The Orchard City Town Board, which is considering its own sales tax proposal for the town, last week gave a thumbs up to the Delta County Ambulance District's bid for a 2.25 mill tax increase on the November ballot.

Following a presentation at the board's Oct. 12 meeting, trustees voted to give political support to the ambulance district's proposal for the tax hike from 2.5 to 5.75 mills. Three trustees voted in favor. Abstaining from the vote were trustees Dick Kirkpatrick and Tom Huerkamp who both also sit on the DCAD board of directors, and Gynee Thomassen who has done paid work for the district. Huerkamp suggested that the mayor cast a vote to break the board's "tie" vote of three votes in favor and three votes abstaining. (In Orchard City the mayor votes only to break tie votes.) As the mayor had no reason to abstain as the others had, he then cast a vote in favor.

The district's tax hike proposal as presented to voters is bound up with issues of unfunded mandates, tax driven economic development and health care. Thus voters have been handed a task of separating common sense pocketbook issues from emotional ones.

Linda Lowitz, formerly a member of the DCAD board of directors for 12 years, gave a presentation to the trustees during their regular meeting. Lowitz spoke representing The Friends of Delta County Ambulance District, an organization which maintains a Facebook page where the public can find information about the district and the ambulance service, Lowitz said.

Her presentation covered the district's operations, types of calls it responds to including standby at local events, home visits, classes and community outreach. She also touched on some expenses the district incurs maintaining its 24/7, 365-day response capability.

A problem for the ambulance district is that negative financial results are being driven by the imposition of Obamacare. For example, the government-mandated health care market under Obamacare places less value on the district's medical services than district officials say is the cost of providing them. An information advisory issued by the district notes "financial shortfalls have increased due to regulations imposed by [the Affordable Care Act]."

Obamacare has led to greatly increased local enrollments in Medicaid, a federal medical insurance program that pays as little as 7 percent of costs. Medicaid payments to providers countywide exceed $2 million per month, according to the health department. Lowitz said that 70 percent of the district's clients are on the low-paying federal Medicare or Medicaid insurance. Collections are less than 50 percent of patient billings. The federal regulations have contributed to depletion of district cash reserves, Lowitz said.

So, the property tax increase, if approved, would raise almost $600,000 additional every year for the district. The actual question on November's ballot provides no detail on how the money will be spent. Some of that nearly $600,000 per year would be used to "offset budget shortfalls" that have cost the district $200,000 over the past three years.

And, the ballot question would make the increase from 2.5 mills to 5.75 mills permanent. The proposed tax increase does not have a sunset provision.

The ambulance district's ballot question also removes all taxpayer protections under the voter-approved Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR) state constitutional amendment. The ballot question would not only raise taxes, but it would also exempt "all district revenues" from the TABOR spending limitations.

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Delta County Ambulance District, Orchard City
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