Financial Fallout from 1A’s Defeat

Prowers County Courthouse


Prowers County Impact:

4,002 votes were cast on November 6th concerning Prowers County Ballot Issue 1A, a proposed county tax increase to generate additional revenues for the ambulance service in and around Prowers County.  The measure was defeated 2,102 against to 1,900 in favor.  Had it passed, it was estimated to be able to add an additional $400,000 per year to the overall ambulance fund which would be divided among the city, a contingency fund and the Holly Fire and Ambulance District.

The ambulance expenses for the operation of the Lamar Fire and Ambulance Service have been in the red for numerous years and the expenses continue to grow. The City of Lamar and Prowers County use revenues from their general funds to help offset annual losses forcing both municipal entities to decide that a .0025 per cent, county-wide sales tax would be the most equitable means to generate the needed funding.  With that recent ballot loss both entities are going to have to find a way to alter their 2019 and subsequent budgets to maintain the operation of the ambulance service.  Each call for service is estimated at $800, plus mileage expenses.

The Prowers County Commissioners are reviewing their budget and Commissioner Chairman, Ron Cook said some extra meetings will be required to figure how to fund the service. The county contributes $50,000 to the operation each year.  Cook said, “Two years ago it was $68,500 and then last year it was $50,000 but with what Medicare and Medicaid haven’t paid on this year’s collections, that amount will be excessively more.”

When asked if the county would consider another election for similar funding, he replied, “We’re just going to have to get proactive now on how we’re going to fund this. And how we’re going to just get through the next few years to get this funded.”  He said the reimbursements from private pay, insurance coverage and Medicaid and Medicare don’t support the costs.

Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade said the ballot outcome will also impact the Holly District. “They’ll still have their mill levy support, but it’s hard as they’re running with all volunteers and it seems like they’re burning their candle at both ends.”

She added that the budget cuts will be difficult. “You have to have a balanced budget and the cutbacks have an impact. Some of our buildings aren’t being maintained as we’d like and it’s becoming critical.  We’ve had a boiler go out this year, there’s more roof repair needed over the courthouse and these are all areas left undone because you’re taking away funding that needs to cover the ambulance costs.  We’re surviving on a minimal budget.  The tax increase would have been very small compared to what the citizens are receiving for ambulance service.”

Cook explained that personnel costs play a role in budget consideration, citing cost of living increases and insurance benefits that have also gone up. Buxton- Andrade added, “People don’t understand that we’re (the County) basically a service industry with increased costs but there’s no increase to our revenues.”  State regulations also have an impact such as the Gallagher Amendment that affects rural areas with a decreased tax base due to lack of economic growth.   The net effect has been a marked decline in revenues collected from property taxes.

Municipal Offices in Lamar

City of Lamar Impact:

Because most of the ambulance calls for service fall within the City of Lamar boundaries, the city’s finances are proportionally greater than that of the county, but both are facing budget constraints with the defeat of 1A.

City Administrator, John Sutherland, laid out the harsh financial future for the 2019 ambulance fund, “Right now, we’re running at a loss of $165,136 in the coming year for the fund.” He said that he and Kristin McCrea, City Treasurer, had been spending a portion of their Wednesday following the election, reviewing the figures in light of the loss of an estimated $240,000, the city’s share of the $400,000 that could have been generated by the additional county sales tax.

“We are running a quality operation and are serving our residents with a response time on ambulance calls from between four and five minutes and I believe our citizens deserve to have this service, but we’re running it at a $165,000 loss for 2019.” He said the city council, this past Monday, reviewed a comparison print-out showing similar sized Colorado communities that were facing the same situation.  “Most of them are losing several hundred thousand dollars a year and some of the larger ones are in the red by over $1 million.  The few that are in the black are financed by a mill levy in an ambulance district.”

Sutherland offered a challenge to those voters who, as he stated, “Think we manufacture money out of thin air. I challenge anyone to go through this budget and show us where this surplus is that we’re supposed to generate.  We drive old antique ambulances that have mechanical problems or won’t start, but we fix them up and put them back on the road.  We turn over old ambulances once in every 20 years between replacements from an old to a new one.”  Sutherland said the financial constraints go beyond equipment, “We have trouble recruiting for drivers and care workers, our EMTs and basics and intermediates because we can’t afford comparable salaries offered from other similar sized communities.”

Asked if there are plans to return with a vote in 2020, he said, “What do we do between that point? I’m waiting for the state to write a letter to tell us we’ve exhausted our fund balance and we’re operating without sufficient funds to run the operation and what penalties we’re going to suffer.  You can’t run a budget in the red.”  The Administrator said Medicaid and Medicare payments are the main problem as 65% of the ambulance revenue that comes to the city is lost before it gets into the revenue account.  “Our write-off level is 65% which means we’re operating on the balance, 35%.  You write $690,000 as revenue but you only get about $240,000.  We’re also supplementing the ambulance salaries at 50% and now we have the debt payment for a replacement ambulance as the oldest one just died.”

While there are no plans to curtail any ambulance service to the community, Sutherland said the hardest option would be to shut down immediate on-call service between midnight to 7am and have all calls go through 9-1-1. But for now, the belt-tightening on the county and city budgets will continue.

By Russ Baldwin


Filed Under: City of HollyCity of LamarCity of WileyConsumer IssuesCountyEconomyFeaturedHealthPublic SafetyTransportationUtilities


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