County voters asked to renew ambulance tax

Mar. 23—There were no sirens or flashing lights, but the campaign to pass a Buchanan County ambulance tax came with a sense of urgency in 2013.

After the local hospital decided to no longer provide ambulance service, voters were asked to support a quarter-cent tax for a county-run EMS operation. Nearly a decade later, an effort to renew that tax moves forward at a less frantic pace. But to supporters, the core message is the same.

"This is something that is paramount," said Scott Meierhoffer, chairman of the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority board, or REMSA. "Really, all you have to think about is if you have a loved one and something happens, you want to make sure that they can get there as fast as they can and give you the best care that they can."

Buchanan County voters will decide on April 4 whether to extend the quarter-cent tax that generates $3.9 million a year for Buchanan County EMS. That amounts to about a third of its revenue, with the remainder coming from private insurance or government reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. The county is seeking a 20-year sunset on the tax.

"We're wanting to plan to make sure that this is sustainable because we feel like we have good EMS service here in Buchanan County," said Wally Patrick, executive director of Buchanan County EMS. "We want to continue to support the public."

It wasn't easy for the county to start an EMS service after the hospital, known as Heartland Health at the time, got out of the ambulance business because it was losing money on it. Today, Buchanan County EMS has 65 full-time employees and about 60 others who work on an as-needed basis. The EMS service has grown its fleet of ambulances from six to 12. It now operates four posts throughout the county and reports a response time under six minutes in St. Joseph and about 11 minutes in the county."

"We're in a great spot and we would hate to have the community and the county to go backward," Meierhoffer said.

The ambulance service responds to about 16,000 calls a year, with a significant rise in overdose cases since the original tax was passed.

"Unfortunately, over the past several years, as you look across the nation, you'll see that's fairly common," Patrick said.

One thing different this year is the sunset that would extend the tax for 20 years, an increase from the 10-year sunset on the original tax. Buchanan County Presiding Commissioner Scott Nelson said the longer sunset would allow the EMS service to set aside money and plan for future capital expenses.

"You know there has to be a rotation on these ambulances and equipment that goes inside it," Nelson said.

Patrick said capital expenses are enormous, with a new ambulance costing close to $300,000 and sometimes taking several years to arrive. A cardiac monitor can cost $33,000.

He said longer-term security in county funding may be even more necessary given the fluctuation and uncertainty of government payments to ground-based ambulance services. Medicare accounts for about 65% of the revenue for Buchanan County EMS.

"We have to plan for the future while we're taking care of the current state," Patrick said. "We're trying to do that, so when I'm gone I can rest assured that when I call the ambulance in six years I'm going to get the same high-quality EMS service we currently have."

The original tax passed in 2013 with 66% voter approval.

Greg Kozol can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.