Milton-Freewater voters can have their say on the fate of their ambulance service between now and Nov. 5.
On the ballot will be two items, which must both pass to change residents’ ambulance district title and increase their assessed value property tax.
The first question will ask whether to dissolve the Milton-Freewater Ambulance Service Area Health District 7-791 to form the Milton-Freewater Valley Ambulance District, which would be effective June 30, 2020, and would eliminate the current tax rate of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. However, another question will ask whether the new Milton-Freewater Valley Ambulance District should be formed with a tax rate of $1.10 per $1,000, which would be effective July 1, 2020.
Both measures must pass for any changes to take place with the current title and tax rate. If they do, Ambulance Board members said $736,000 would be provided for ambulance operating expenses. That would mean the rate for an average household would change from about $47 per year to about $207 per year July 1, 2020. The current boundaries would remain, which are the City of Milton-Freewater and the Milton-Freewater School District No. 7.
Ambulance board members originally proposed a $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed land value, but later agreed it was too much for voters to accept, even though it was needed, boardman Dan Kilmer said during a hearing in August. The current proposed rate would be “appropriate to carry the ambulance service, or at least better than $0.25,” he said.
The current rate wasn’t adequate to maintain the ambulance service, officials said at the meeting. Vehicles needed to be repaired, replaced, and adequately staffed and stocked, as well as personnel properly paid, according George White, ambulance board treasurer. The 17,000-pound vehicles answer about 1,000 calls per year, so they have “a lot of wear and tear.”
Additionally, costs have risen and times have changed, said ambulance boardman Wes Koklich, and instead of updating equipment, things like bulletproof vests had to be purchased. There also was the issue of Medicaid not fully paying people’s bills, he said.
“We’re just trying to stay afloat,” Koklich said. “It’s been inadequate for so long. It’s getting to be where we won’t have any ambulance service.”
Rick Saager, who owns and operates ambulances for the ambulance district, has told officials he will not continue to provide services on the current $0.25 per $1,000 of assessed land value — passed by voters in 2011 — after his contract with the ambulance district ends June 30, 2022, because he is operating in the red. If that happens, the ambulance district will have to ask for bids from contractors, according to White. Neighboring ambulances annexing Milton-Freewater wasn’t an option, White added.
“Both Walla Walla and Athena said they won’t cover us,” White said at the meeting.
If the ambulance district can’t find bids, they’ll ask the county to step in to find a provider, he said. But, there was no clear understanding of what would happen next at the meeting; only that the state required an ambulance service be provided.
Voters also will be asked to vote for five ambulance board directors, among George White, Wes Koklich, Dan Kilmer, Janice Holden, along with spaces for several write-ins.