Renewal? SJ EMS seeks 42 percent hike in property tax levy

Amid all the facts and figures bandied about by proponents and opponents concerning the San Juan EMS levy on the Feb. 11 ballot, one that is a bit of a stretch is that this levy is a “renewal” of the current six-year levy.

That fact and other complaints have raised the level of skepticism about asking voters to support a permanent levy that is a 42-percent increase over the 6-year levy enacted in 2010. The skepticism is heightened, according to Frank Mulcahy, when information is scanty and no statement in opposition is included in the online voters’ guide.

“Any issue should have statements for and against,” Mulcahy said. “We don’t get enough information in the voter’s guide and I’m surprised that there aren’t statements opposed.”

The current levy, at a rate of 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, does not expire until the end of 2016. The proposed levy, at 50 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed valuation, would replace the current six-year levy with a permanent levy at the maximum allowed by state law for EMS levies.

Although San Juan County Assessor Charles Zalmanek points out he could not and would not either endorse or oppose any ballot levy, he did say that, in his opinion, both the permanent nature of the ballot proposition and the increase in the levy rate to 50 cents per thousand was “reasonable.”

Zalmanek reviewed the history of the EMS levy and confirmed EMS Chief Jim Cole’s assertion that the recession had severely impacted the amount generated by the 35 cents per 1,000 rate approved by voters in 2010 for the years 2011 through 2016.

Even if the 2010 levy had been at the state-law maximum of 50 cents per $1000 of assessed valuation, the property tax increase of 1-percent per year permitted by state law would only have permitted a levy rate of about 47 cents per $1,000.

Zalmanek adds that the 50-cent limit is ironclad and cannot be exceeded without a change in state law.

He said that the current levy raised $1.23 million in 2011, but, because of recession-induced declines in property values, only $963,000 was available for the current 2014 budget year.

That represents a drop of about 22 percent in taxpayer contribution to EMS over four years, although the EMS budget increased from about $1.56 million in 2010 to $3.87 million in 2014.

The “deficit,” Cole points out, was made up from other income sources – mostly fees received by EMS for ground and air transportation paid by patients’ health insurance.

If the permanent levy is approved by the voters, Zalmanek calculated that the 50-cent per $1,000 rate would generate about $1.38 million in 2015.

Both Cole and San Juan County Hospital District Commission Secretary Treasurer Dr. Michael Edwards say unequivocally that EMS will not ask for the full amount, 50 cents, available under the proposed levy.

“We’ve always been frugal with our budgets and that won’t change,” Cole said.

Cole also defends the “permanent” feature of the ballot issue.

“It is time the EMS has a permanent and unwavering supporting levy,” he said, adding that the permanent levy “would allow for consistent funding without putting our EMS system funding in jeopardy every six years.”

The total 2014 EMS budget is close to $3.87 million, $400,000 of which is earmarked for Island Air Ambulance. All Island Air income comes from amounts collected from transported patients’ insurance policies, and insurance payments provide a substantial portion of other EMS services. Hospital District residents never pay anything out of pocket for any EMS service, Cole said.