Assessing Emergency Medical Services

-A A +A
By Marsha Drew

EMS assessments are changing this year. Historically, all property owners have paid the same annual amount of $75, regardless of their size or the frequency of calls. This meant that Wal-Mart paid the same assessed fee as a residential property owner. In an effort to be more equitable, a formula based on square footage for commercial, institutional and industrial/warehouse designated property was recommended by a company hired by the county to look at our assessment structure.

The formula is a sliding scale starting at 6 cents per square foot to 1 cent per square foot for commercial property. Other property designations, residential and institutional and industrial/warehouse, had corresponding rates on the same sliding scale. Since not all property owners pay ad valorum tax, our EMS assessment is the one vehicle the county can use to spread the cost of this service to its users.

At a public hearing on Sept. 8, a courtroom full of taxpayers expressed their concern over the burden of any additional costs for the EMS service. In an effort to give them relief from the highest proposed fee of 6 cents per square foot for commercial property and fees in other associated categories, I made a motion and the Commission voted 3-2, to keep the new fee structure in place but cut the square footage cost to half of the 6 cents initially proposed.

Since the commercial and residential fees were calculated by a formula, this would also drop the corresponding residential fee. The new fee to property owners, for 2010, will be $38 per year for residential, half of last years residential cost, 3 cents per square foot for commercial, 8 cents per square foot for institutional and 1 cent per square foot for warehouse/industrial. The amount of money these fees will generate is approximately $600,000.00 less than last year.

In my closing statement I explained that the overall cost of EMS would still have to be paid and the shortfall will come from another source, namely reserves. As I have remarked in prior meetings, I feel our reserve fund is the people’s money and it should be used during hard times such as these to offset the burden of any tax increases. My concern for our future is that our reserve is not a bottomless bucket of money. County government must always be looking for ways to be more efficient and make the money we have go further.

Since taking office, I have worked hard to understand the spending in each county department, in an effort to ensure our tax dollars are being spent wisely. Cuts have been made across the board: take home cars have been parked; cell phones turned in; lights turned off; and unfilled positions have been left vacant, in an attempt to curb spending. Cuts can be a double-edged sword however and items like road paving may take longer to accomplish.

The two largest parts of our budget, the Sheriff's Department and the Emergency Medical Services have both cut their costs and are now working with proposed budgets that are less than last year’s bottom line. I applaud them for their fiscal responsibility. However, I still feel that the EMS financial structure is flawed. This should not be confused with the service they provide, which is outstanding. Currently, Levy County taxpayers pay their yearly assessment which only covers a fraction of the EMS budget. The balance, as I said, is made up from reserves and reserves are created from taxes. Assessments and reserves only keep the EMS doors open. If the ambulance comes to your home or business you pay again for the actual service, over and above your assessment. My focus, in these past six months, has been to try to find a way to make this service more affordable or better yet, self supporting. It’s a difficult task for a large rural county with limited resources.

Many of us have poured over the EMS budget, cutting almost $600,000.00 from their $4,700,000 proposed 2010 budget. Recently, Directors from the Emergency Medical Service of Volusia County sat down with our County Administrator Fred Moody, EMS Director Trish Siebold, and the head of the Fire Advisory Board Lamar Stegall, and myself, and offered us many cost saving suggestions that could allow our service to operate more efficiently in the future. Their system is different than ours but their director’s 30+ years of experience allowed him to provide us new ways of looking at some of our local issues.

EMS is a vital service and one that many people feel they’d rather not pay for, until they need it. The men and women of the EMS service are heroes who save lives everyday and I for one appreciate the job they do. My criticism of the department is strictly one of economics. I understand that it’s a fine line between being financially efficient and making sure they have enough money to provide a quality service.

The Levy County budget has gone through a great deal of fine tuning and after months of pouring over balance sheets, sorting through costs and ways to save money, we are finally nearing the finish line. Our final Budget Public Hearing is scheduled for Sept. 21. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made and I believe the day after we adopt this year’s final budget will be the day to get started on next years. The 2011 budget year could be as difficult as 2010’s has been and we need to continue to work together to find ways to provide necessary services in a cost effective manner.

I hope the citizens of Levy County will attend upcoming county meetings, and take part in the processes which will determine our future.

My website www.marshadrew.com will give you important contact information, meeting dates and news of interest. I am always available to answer any questions you may have, by email at marshaedrew@bellsouth.net or by phone at 352 220-9801.

Commencing on September 26, from 10-11am, at the Lion’s Club in Yankeetown, I will start series of informal community meetings. I would like to sit down over coffee and listen to the concerns of Levy County residents and inform them of the work the Board of County Commissioners has undertaken since my appointment. If your group or community would like to schedule a meeting in your area please contact me to make arrangements.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Marsha Drew, Levy County Commission, District 3

PLEASE NOTE if you are writing to me in my capacity as a County Commissioner: Florida has a broad public records law and all correspondence, including email addresses, may be subject to disclosure