New Mexico Voters Strongly Support EMS Tax

March 14, 2013
Residents in San Juan County overwhelmingly supported an ordinance allowing local governments to collect a gross receipt tax to pay for ambulance service and emergency communications.

March 13--FARMINGTON -- The tax is staying.

So is 911.

County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of an ordinance that allows local governments to collect a gross receipts tax to pay for the area's emergency communications and ambulance services.

Voters approved the Emergency Communications and Emergency Medical and Behavioral Health Services Tax 3,873 -- 356 on Tuesday, according to unofficial results.

The tax subsidizes about half the cost of San Juan Regional Medical Center's EMS program and pays for the San Juan County Communications Authority, which handles all 911 calls in the area.

"I think what government exists for is public safety. And EMS and the 911 center are at the forefront of public safety," said Ed Horvat, the manager of the hospital's EMS program. "We're where the rubber hits the road."

The tax is .18 percent of all gross receipts in the county. It is expected to amount to $7.1 million this year.

The tax has been in place since 2003 when it was approved 2,341 votes to 670. Tuesday's vote gives local governments the ability to collect the tax indefinitely.

"Given where we are today in the world with more and more people being against government, I am elated there were more people in favor of it today than there were 10 years ago," San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said. "I couldn't be happier with the message voters sent."

Leaders from the other local governments also expressed thanks to the

voters for their support of the tax.

"I thank the voters of San Juan County for showing strong support for the tax," Bloomfield Mayor and San Juan County Commission Chairman Scott Eckstein said. "It's vital for our community to ensure the continuation of quality service EMS provides."

In 2011, the EMS program's operating budget was about $6 million. Half that money came from the EMS tax and patients paid $100,000, Horvat said.

"In New Mexico we want people to be able to call an ambulance and know they are not going to go broke doing it," Horvat said. "It's not a matter of if you are gong to call an ambulance. It's when."

Gross receipt taxes in San Juan County will remain at 6.3 percent in unincorporated San Juan County, 7.7 percent in Bloomfield and 7.75 percent in Aztec. Gross receipt taxes in Farmington are 7.1 percent.

If voters would had said no to the tax, Farmington and San Juan County governments would have had to each spend more than $3 million for the 911 center and the ambulance services, according to an intergovernmental agreement agreed to before the tax was implemented.

"The general fund is vulnerable in today's economy," Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts said. "We're going to be dealing with some hard decisions in dealing with our 2014 budget, and to have an added burden would have been unmanageable."

Bloomfield and Aztec would have had to each allocate about $400,000 to the programs.

"I really don't know where we would have had to cut budgets if this had somehow failed," Eckstein said. "I'm pleased our citizens are so well educated on this. They showed they are today, that's for sure."

Of the county's 73,039 registered voters, 4,229 cast a ballot in Tuesday's election, or 5.8 percent of voters.

Several voters who supported the ordinance said they were concerned about how local governments would react to a loss in gross receipts taxes.

"We have to have emergency response in the county," said John Collins, a retired San Juan College instructor who voted in favor of the tax. "They are going to have to make up (the money) somehow and I don't know where they'd make it up. Property taxes?"

Many of the voters at the polls were local government employees, firefighters and other medical personnel.

"It's not beneficial to me as a city employee to vote against the tax," said Denise Conway, a part-time recreation leader for Sycamore Park Community Center. "As a part-time employee I might be the first to go if there was some big deficit."

Kristina Lefever, a nurse in Farmington, said it's important for San Juan County to have top-notch emergency response.

"We're in a remote area and they do a lot of rescues," she said. "If we had less services we wouldn't be able to rescue and serve people in the surrounding areas."

Jennifer Gonzales, a part-time employee at Farmington's library, said she has never called 911 or been in an ambulance, but she voted for the tax because she may need the services someday.

"Things happen everyday. What are you going to do if you need these services?" she said. "We're all dependent on them. Maybe not today, but someday there is going to be an emergency."

Daily Times reporters James Fenton and Greg Yee contributed to this report.

Ryan Boetel may be reached at [email protected]; 564-4644. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel.

Copyright 2013 - The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.

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