Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Decision time

Mail ballots out for proposed Stillwater Ambulance District, due back by May 2

It’s decision time.
Mail ballots for the creation and funding of the Stillwater Ambulance District No. 1 began arriving this week in the mailboxes of taxpayers who live in the elementary school districts of Columbus, Reed Point and Rapelje.
All ballots must be back to the Stillwater County Clerk & Recorders Office by May 2 at 8 p.m.
That means in two and a half weeks, the Columbus Fire Rescue will know if it will be able to continue Advanced Life Support services.

The Columbus Rural Fire Board and Columbus Fire Rescue are seeking to create a funding mechanism that will allow the continuation of ALS services performed by three paramedics and two advanced EMTs. Those positions are currently funded through two federal grants. Those grants are now expiring and with them, the potential loss of those positions.
The board, Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger, Dr. David Kane and other healthcare providers contend the loss of ALS services in the Columbus area would be damaging, as it would increase patient wait time in being transported to other hospitals as well as reduced field skills.
If passed, the Stillwater Ambulance District would ensure the retention of those ALS serving positions. The ballot has the backing of Stillwater Billings Clinic healthcare providers, the Columbus Rural Fire Board and local law enforcement.
Additionally, the Stillwater County Commissioners previously approved all the language on the ballot in a prior resolution.
A 5-member citizen board would be responsible for matters including budgeting, hiring, wages, setting fees and more. That board would initially be appointed by the commissioners then turn into elected positions. The board would be its own entity and serve as a pass-through, while maintaining an interlocal agreement with Columbus Fire Rescue to provide these services.

The mill levy would not exceed 13.3 mills, which means a total of approximately $300,083 assessed on all properties within the boundary of Stillwater Ambulance District 1.
A property owner with an assessed market value of $100,000 would pay approximately $17.96 per year.
A property owner with an assessed market value of $200,000 would pay approximately $35.92 per year, according to the resolution drafted by CFR Chief Rich Cowger and adopted by the Stillwater County Commissioners.
Cowger said he and the Columbus Rural Fire Board looked at several other possible solutions — such as raising user rates — but all fell short.
“Raising taxes was the last thing we wanted to do,” said Cowger. “We understand people’s distrust of government agencies.”

It costs approximately $417,000 a year to run the ambulance service, said Cowger.
During the past three years, the average yearly ambulance income has been $268,000, according to Solestone Reimbursement Services, which handles collections for CFR.
That represents a 79.5 percent payment average, which Cowger said is fairly high in the ambulance business.
The yearly shortfall of $149,000 has been taken care of by the grants.
CFR’s average base rate is approximately $750. Cowger notes that insurance and Medicare pay below billed rates. To make up for that shortfall through user-rates alone, the numbers would at least double. And even then, that would not guarantee enough money would be generated to sustain the positions.
Cowger said a maximum mill of 13.3 was set to allow room for growth, noting that while that full amount may be assessed the first year, that doesn’t mean it would continue at that capped amount.
He explains it as the tax money making ALS service available through the personnel and the user-rate money representing the actual providing of ALS care.

The Columbus Fire Rescue ambulance budget overview is broken down as follows:
•Yearly Cost of Ambulance Service: $417,000
•Yearly Average Ambulance Income: $268,000 over a 3-year average
•Yearly Operating Expenses: $70,000
•Capital and Insurance: $40,000
•Remaining For Personnel Expenses:
-$67,000 for lead paramedic/assistant chief/training officer (this includes the benefit package, which is approximately half of the total dollar amount).
-$240,000 for four additional paramedics and advanced EMTs (this includes the benefit package, which is approximately half of the total dollar amount).
•Shortfall: $149,00 currently covered by federal grants

Shall the proposition to organize the Stillwater Ambulance District #1 be
The District will primarily provide both emergency and non-emergency ambulance response, emergency medical services, and other emergency services beneficial to the citizens of the district. The proposed district shall include the City of Columbus, the
Columbus Elementary School District, the Reed Point School District, the Rapelje
Elementary School District and the Columbus Rural Fire District #3.

Shall the proposed District if approved be financed by a mill levy of a maximum of
13.3 mills?
The District will be financed by a maximum mill levy of 13.3 mills, being approximately $300,083.00 on all assessed properties within the proposed District. An annual payment for a $100,000 assessed value would be approximately $17.96, for a $200.000 assessed value cost would be approximately $35.92. The mill levy would be in perpetuity. An appointed Board of five citizen members may administer the District through an Interlocal agreement with the Columbus Rural Fire District #3 to provide services.