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Valley County voters asked to spend big on Emergency Medical Services changes

A red and white ambulance backed up to a garage bay.
Samantha Sais
Valley County
A Valley County ambulance.

Voters in Valley County are being asked to give property owners a sizable tax hike to fund Emergency Medical Services. County officials and first responders say the area has outgrown its existing EMS structure and funding.

The change is split into two issues on the ballot Tuesday, Nov. 7: one would create a new county-wide EMS district, and separately, the $4 million dollar property tax levy to pay for it.

The "override" levy for EMS would be more than triple the current levy; from about $12 for every $100,000 in taxable property value to about $40 annually.

“People seem to understand the predicament that we're in,” said McCall Fire Chief Garrett de Jong.

Emergency Medical Services in Valley County are contracted through the fire districts. As costs have risen, need has grown and the pool of volunteer first responders has shrunk, fire districts have been forced to subsidize EMS from their fire budgets. The county has also shifted some of its general revenue (PILT program funds paid to the county by the federal government) to support EMS operations.

“A lot of it revolves too, around all three fire districts really moving from a volunteer model and to a more professional model due to the lack of volunteers, the increase in call volume across the the county,” de Jong said.

"Making do" compromises the area’s fire readiness, he said, and even then, EMS service in Valley County is still behind the curve of a growing population.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

The proposal before voters calls for the creation of a stand-alone EMS district, with a new 3-member governing board. Those volunteer commissioners would be appointed by the Board of County Commissioners. The new funding from the override levy would support a professionally-staffed ambulance in each McCall, Cascade and Donnelly, plus a fourth unit as backup. It costs about one million dollars a year to staff an ambulance.

“We're not even asking for any kind of administrative costs,” DeJong said. Those would be folded into the existing fire districts, which he characterized as a ‘win-win’ for taxpayers because of natural overlap between fire and EMS response.

They are asking that voters understand the issue before arriving at the polls.

McKenzie Kraemer is a county public relations contractor. Her PR company was also hired specifically to get the word out about the EMS ballot issues. She’s coordinated multiple open houses for community members leading up to election day.

“Most of the questions have really centered around just understanding the structure,” she said, “and that there is a separate EMS district, there are separate fire districts, and how all that funding is interrelated and how it and how it's not related.”

The events have been lightly attended. There’s no known organized opposition to the bond, and even social media posts promoting information about the ballot issues have generated few comments - positive or negative.

“I don't know if that's good or bad,” Kraemer said. “What I have found is that, generally speaking, if people are not aware of a levy being on a ballot, they see something that says it will increase your property taxes [and] the knee jerk reaction is to vote no.”

The assessed property tax for homeowners of a half-million dollar primary residence - Valley County’s current median price would be $135 a year for EMS service, up from about $41 a year now.

Four EMS units is the target number to ensure adequate response is available if one unit is already out on a call. Emergency response to Yellow Pine, for example, can take an EMS unit six hours round-trip.

Both Kraemer and deJong say they’ve heard concern and frustration over the cost of emergency response in a high tourism area falling on local property owners. Resort communities in Idaho can levy local option taxes as additional sales or lodging taxes, but those can’t go toward costs like EMS operations.

Kraemer said the county considers EMS a basic necessity and important to provide for residents and visitors alike.

“We expect the same level of service when we travel or if we go somewhere else,” she said.

Local fire districts will get a boost in the coming years from higher impact fees on new construction in unincorporated parts of Valley County. The Board of County Commissioners at its October 16 meeting approved new impact fees to begin Nov. 16, 2023 in each district. Amounts vary by district, but the average fee for a new residence is about $2,200. Non-residential new construction impact fees are determined by square footage.

That revenue will support capital projects for the local fire districts, including buildings and equipment purchases - but can’t fund staffing. de Jong said the revenue will allow the districts to generate capital improvement plans for the next ten years.

If voters pass the EMS restructuring Nov. 7 with a simple majority, but fall short of the required supermajority to increase the levy to fund the new district, a new 3-person EMS Commission would have to figure out how to operate within the new structure without any new revenue.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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