Wash. county to spend $4.4M more on EMS

About $3 million of the 2019 total is in one-time costs, and the county plans to rebuild its reserve fund throughout its six-year EMS levy

By Brandon Stone
Skagit Valley Herald

SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. — Skagit County plans to spend about $4.4 million more on emergency medical services in 2019 than it will in 2018 —$10.9 million compared $6.5 million.

This spending plan, finalized Sept. 11, was one of the last major hurdles facing a plan to dissolve the Central Valley Ambulance Authority and have the county's four cities provide the bulk of ambulance services starting Jan. 1.

About $3 million of the 2019 total is in one-time costs, and the county plans to rebuild its reserve fund throughout its six-year EMS levy, EMS Director Jeff Sargent said.

This means the county will spend about $2.3 million out of its about $5.5 million EMS reserve fund next year, according to a county budget document. The county will also spend the about $8.6 million raised from the levy and other revenue.

Voters approved an increase to the levy in August.

However, Sargent said residents will see more paramedics, more ambulances and a greater emphasis on training for emergency medical staff.

"You're going to see more vehicles that can be dispatched to emergency calls than (in 2018)," he said.

County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said he's skeptical that the level of service will improve, especially for rural residents.

"We're going to pay $4 million more to provide the same service?" he said Tuesday. "That doesn't sound more efficient to me."

Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere said the money received from the county will be tight, but she believes it will cover the city's costs.

In discussions at an Anacortes City Council meeting Sept. 10, Gere said the city would not be able to meet its goal of keeping a 24/7 ambulance at March Point and was considering ways to reduce costs.

One of the ideas considered was a "brownout," which would essentially set times when the March Point ambulance wouldn't be staffed.

On Sept. 11, the county commissioners agreed to reduce the EMS department's reserve fund, freeing up $800,000 for one-time payments to the four cities.

Anacortes is receiving $208,000 in 2019 as a one-time payment, which will be enough to keep the ambulance at the March Point station running 24/7 during 2019, Gere said. Right now, it runs 12 hours per day but serves a smaller area.

"There are going to be no brownouts," she said.

The one-time payment is in addition to the about $1.3 million the city will receive annually from the EMS levy starting in 2019.

When the city's new agreement takes effect Jan. 1, Anacortes' service area will extend east to Best Road, so having an ambulance at March Point that is staffed 24 hours a day will be necessary to meet response times required by the county.

"We had considered brownouts (at the Sept. 10 meeting), but we decided they were not viable," Gere said, clarifying that brownouts would likely keep the city from meeting the average response time requirements.

Gere said the city fire department is hiring four new paramedics to prepare for the transition.

The city will have to find a way to fully fund staff by 2020, potentially by dipping into its general fund, Gere said.

"It's challenging, but we're committed to making this work," she said.

Funding is tight for each city, but there isn't any more levy money available, she said.

Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau said her city is planning to spend 2019 looking for ways to become more efficient.

"We're striving simply to break even," she said. "I think we're well positioned to do that."

Mount Vernon, which will receive about $1.4 million annually and an extra $222,400 in 2019, plans to hire 15 paramedics for its two ambulances units.

Boudreau said the city will avoid making major changes to the system until staff has some experience running it and can look at call data to find ways to improve.

"Once we have time, it will be very evident how we can make the system better," she said.

Sedro-Woolley Mayor Julia Johnson said the amount the city will receive is "the minimum of what we asked for" to fund service in its response area.

The city will get about $1.1 million annually, as well as a one-time payment of $184,800.

She said Sedro-Woolley is planning to run three ambulances in its service area, which will be staffed either by EMTs or more highly trained paramedics based on need.

The fire department is hiring nine paramedics to make this happen, she said.

Similarly, Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said the county's offer was sufficient for what his fire department needs to cover its region, but he said all the cities wish they had more funding to work with.

"We're going to make it work," he said, adding that city staff will find and implement efficiencies as they get more experience.

Like Sedro-Woolley, Burlington is receiving about $1.1 million annually and $184,800 in start-up money, and it also plans to hire nine paramedics.

"It's key that we look at new and innovative ways to provide service to our residents," he said.

Aero Skagit, the nonprofit that serves the county east of Hamilton, will receive $964,000 annually.

According to the county budget document, the ambulance providers will receive a 3 percent increase in funding from the county each year.

Representatives from the cities and the county will meet Thursday to discuss finalizing service contracts.

Copyright 2018 Skagit Valley Herald

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