Tallahassee Democrat

County OKs EMS system
Tax-rate increase now under debate
By Jeff Burlew
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER

Leon County commissioners agreed on a new-and-improved emergency medical services system Tuesday but disagreed on whether to raise taxes to pay for it.

Commissioners voted to join with the Tallahassee Fire Department in a new EMS system that would bring advanced life support and new paramedics to the unincorporated area. They also took steps toward creating a new property tax that could be used to fund EMS.

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital announced last year that it would no longer provide EMS after September because the program was losing money. The city and county later hired Fitch & Associates, a Missouri consulting firm, to design a new EMS system.

Under the plan, new equipment will be purchased and 20 new paramedics will be hired for fire stations in the unincorporated area. That will allow EMS workers outside the city limits to perform advanced life support such as cardiac defibrillation and administer drugs and intravenous fluids.

The city and county must meet certain requirements under the contract. Emergency workers will have to respond in less than nine minutes in the city, less than 12 minutes in the suburban area and less than 20 minutes in rural areas. The city would face financial penalties if the response times are not met.

Tax rate debated

The EMS program outlined in the report is estimated to cost nearly $41 million over the next five years. About half of that would be paid by patients with the rest coming from the county.

County commissioners are expected to formally adopt the new tax next month after a public hearing and vote. The actual tax rate, which has not been decided, sparked a debate among Commission Chairman Tony Grippa and Commissioners Cliff Thaell and Bob Rackleff.

Commissioners could set the rate as high as .5 mills, which would generate about $4.4 million a year. One mill equals one dollar of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Grippa suggested keeping the new property tax rate at zero. He said the county could pay for EMS through growth in dollars from existing property taxes, which he estimated at $5 million each year.

"Our first goal ought to be to try to fund this out of existing revenue," Grippa said.

But Thaell and Rackleff said the new tax will be needed to pay for EMS. Rackleff said that while property tax revenues are going up, other county revenues are going down because of state cutbacks.

"So let's not think that there's this pot of gold at the end of this rainbow and money that we can squeeze out of the current services budget," Rackleff said. "It doesn't exist."

Assistant City Manager Tom Coe said the city wants the county to set the rate at an amount that would pay for the portion of EMS not funded through patient bills.

"If you were sitting where the city commissioners are currently sitting, and we were coming to you asking you to provide a service...your comfort level is going to be much higher than if you have (a tax) with a zero there," Coe said.

Thaell and Rackleff said the county needs to reassure the city that it will pay for EMS year after year.

"It's giving direction to our colleagues across the street who have been walking with us in probably the most important decision we will ever make as a Board of County Commissioners - certainly the most important one I have ever made in the last 10 years as a commissioner," Thaell said.

City commissioners today are expected to take up several EMS issues, including whether TFD should provide the service and whether the city should authorize the county to create the new countywide property tax.