County Weighs Possible Fee, Millage Increase To Fund Ambulances

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The Benton County Quorum Court on Thursday night symbolically committed to paying for rural ambulance service in 2015, one way or another.

The Quorum Court members unanimously passed a non-binding resolution funding emergency medical services to unincorporated parts of the county. The resolution was in response to questions over how the county would guarantee ambulance service for rural residents in the future.

“They can’t put it in the bank. They can’t cash a check. But it’s kind of a feel-good thing for the cities,” said Benton County Judge Bob Clinard.

The Quorum Court also passed the first reading of two separate proposals to deal with the funding issue. One proposal would ask voters raise the county millage rate to pay for the service, while the other would put a motion on the ballot to levy a $40 per household fee on unincorporated residents in order to pay for the ambulance service.

Any proposal must be approved by county officials at least 90 days before Election Day in November in order for it to appear on the November ballot. Proposals must go through three readings to be adopted for a vote.

Clinard said one of the two proposals will likely appear on the November ballot. He said county administrators estimate rural EMS service will cost the county $1,050,000 in 2015 and $1.2 million in 2016.

Even if voters approve one of the measures, it will only cover about half of the cost. The other half of the price tag would have to be cut from other county funds, Clinard said.

Spending to cover rural ambulance service costs for this year has already been approved by county officials. The Quorum Court cut $450,000 from the road department’s budget. The county also carried over $236,000 from last year’s funds to help pay down the ambulance costs. The additional $257,000 taken out of Benton County’s reserve fund brought the total cost for rural ambulance service in 2014 to $942,000.

Voters rejected a measure in February that would have levied an $85 annual fee on about 20,000 rural residents of Benton County to pay for service calls to unincorporated areas. The measure failed 2,346 votes (67 percent) to 1,134 (33 percent).

Some emergency crews had warned they could have to cut off some rural areas if the proposed ambulance fee did not pass. No cities ended up cutting rural residents out of ambulance service.

The county has about $11 million in reserve money, Clinard said.

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