Pa. ambulance service considers tax levy to address budget shortfalls
EMS officials are proposing that the townships split the cost of financial support, which would generate about $60,000 more than $75,000 for each town
By Jim T. Ryan
The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.
LANDISBURG, Pa. — In a public meeting on Sept. 19, Tyrone Twp. supervisors and Landisburg EMS discussed what the township could do to help shore up the ambulance company’s operations, including the possibility of an emergency services tax.
Landisburg EMS is facing large deficits without assistance from the municipalities it serves. That has been an issue for a while, but in the past year EMS has started engaging with those municipalities to discuss a consistent funding level in the future. Ambulance officials have said municipal support is necessary to perpetuate local emergency medical services.
The company is projecting to end the year with a nearly $18,000 deficit — down considerably from what it budgeted. But the deficit will balloon to more than $100,000 in 2020 with increasing expenses, such as equipment, supplies, training, and the cost of paid staffing, said Jeremy Fox, Landisburg EMS chief.
“If we’re going to tax residents, we want a paid staff out the door,” he said to the supervisors last week during discussions.
Fox noted that in order to keep qualified ambulance staff, Landisburg would need to increase the pay for emergency medical technicians and drivers. Currently, those rates are $8.50 per hour and $35 per call, respectively. They intend to increase the rates to $10.50 for EMTs and $8 per hour for drivers. That’s responsible for a large part of the deficit increases in next year’s budget, he said.
Spring and Tyrone townships each gave the ambulance company $10,000 this year. Landisburg has not donated.
The township is concerned on several levels. Supervisors question why the EMS company bought a new ambulance recently instead of fixing the old one. That increased its debt, which is another large expense in the EMS budget.
“You’ve got to find some way to bring your debt down,” Supervisor Ed Deiter said.
That’s something that Fox said the company can look into. Even if they can cut loan payments on the ambulance by a few percentage points, that would save thousands of dollars.
Supervisors also are concerned what residents will say about an emergency services tax (that could benefit Landisburg Fire Company, too) in a municipality that’s barely had any tax increases in 40 years.
“There’s going to be a lot of people upset about the tax to begin with,” said Brett Bailey, the supervisors’ chairman. And, he and others noted, some may not understand why they’re getting a bill for ambulance services after they paid a tax.
Emergency services taxes don’t cover every cost associated with an ambulance call or fire services. They help such companies support their operational budgets, such as equipment, training, wages and utilities.
Much of Landisburg EMS’s budget comes from billable calls, where either insurance pays for ambulance services, or the patient pays the balances. Fox said the company responded to 416 calls last year, but of those only about 340 are billable calls. The others involve people who declined service, did not require billable services, or fell into categories where they were financially unable to pay. Insurance denials of payment, as well as insurances that send money directly to the patient instead of paying the EMS are other common problems. So ambulance companies only collect about 77 percent of billable calls, and sometimes those accounts can take a long time to collect.
The state legislature has been looking at these issues and considering various legislative solutions, none of which have passed.
“It would be nice if the government down (in Harrisburg) with the $360 million rainy day fund would kick some out to you guys for ambulance service,” Supervisor Dennis Morrison said. He’s referring to the legislature’s reserve funds meant to cover costs in the event of budget impasses and emergencies.
EMS officials are proposing that Tyrone and Spring townships split the cost of financial support, which could be half a mill of tax increase. That would generate about $60,000 in Tyrone and more than $75,000 in Spring, which would cover current needs and reserve some for the future. Neither municipality has yet approved a tax increase.
“It’s this or there won’t be ambulance service here,” Fox said. “You’ll have to wait for someone to come from outside the area.”
That’s not ideal because every minute counts with medical emergencies, he said.
There’s still heavy skepticism from elected officials.
“At the moment, I don’t think we can show how this tax works,” Deiter said. The township wants the ambulance company to submit regular financial statements and work on debt reduction.
Supervisors said they want to continue talking about how to finance EMS and fire services. When it comes to a tax, they may have to decide by the Oct. 1 meeting because it’s their budget time, too. Nothing is off the table at this point.
“Nobody is saying no to anything, yet,” Bailey said.
©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)