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Hill County ambulance district meeting held in Hingham

Some attendees express skepticism

 

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Paula Miller raises concerns about the viability of a county-wide ambulance district Tuesday during an ambulance district meeting in Hingham.

Representatives from the City of Havre, the Hill County Commission and the Havre Ambulance Service held a public meeting in Hingham Tuesday evening, to explain their proposal of a county-wide ambulance district and what that would mean for residents of the county that live in the service area of the Rudyard Ambulance Service.

Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland and others from the city and county said the proposed district's goal was not to fundamentally change the way the ambulance service works, but to find a way to pay for the services they already provide.

"Somehow there has to be a mechanism to fund it," Wendland said.

Havre City Mayor Tim Solomon and Havre City Finance and Clerk Doug Kaercher said the city has been subsidizing the ambulance service for years because the county, which accounts for 28 percent of ambulance calls, was paying far below that percentage for the service.

Solomon said the county doesn't have the money to make up for that shortfall and unless funds can be raised via a mill levy, the Havre Ambulance service will have to cut back on services and won't be able to take calls from outside the city limits.

"We went to the county, they say they don't have the money, and if they don't come up with it, we'll have to look seriously at our service and mostly likely the first step is, we won't go out into the county, then we'll be backing off some of the services we provide," he said.

Kaercher said coming to county residents for the necessary funds is the last option before cutting services.

"To maintain this level of service for the community we don't really have an option other than to ask for some dollars," he said.

The creation of such a district would involve implementing a 16.33 mill levy on all residents of the county including the City of Havre.

These mills would amount to a tax of $22.04 on a $100,000 home, or $44.08 on a $200,000 one.

Kaercher said the way to calculate the tax assessment is different for agricultural properties. He said the formula for that calculation is to find the property's most recent tax statement, multiply it by the number of mills - 16.33 - then divide that number by 1,000 to come up with the assessment.

An attendee who did not want to provide her name said people working for the county and city are not paying attention to people who live in the area served by the Rudyard Ambulance Service, which receives it's funding from the Havre Ambulance Service.

"Where does the county money go? Whenever we ask for anything, they say they're broke," she said, "Where does it go? ... It's like pulling teeth. Nobody west of Havre even knows that we exist. You guys don't know the Hi-Line."

Another attendee asked what the city has done to look into cutting costs for the service without having to raise mill levys.

Solomon said the city has been working on trying to find solutions, even reaching out to private ambulance services, which he said are not interested in the area due to it's relatively low call volume and because of how many calls involve Medicare and Medicaid.

"They won't even look at Havre," he said.

Paula Miller, a volunteer for the Rudyard Ambulance Service, said she didn't want people in the area to pay more taxes if the Rudyard service wasn't going to get anything out of it.

"I'm not that generous," she said.

Miller also said because the Havre service is paid and the Rudyard service is mainly volunteers, Havre stands to gain more from this proposal.

"Right now, when Havre EMTs go out on a call, they're on the clock, we're there because we're good guys, we're volunteers," she said.

Solomon said while the district will not immediately change how the services work, but it would necessitate the creation of an ambulance district board which would have representation from the Rudyard Ambulance Service.

"You guys would have representation on that board, and you can tell them about your needs," he said.

Kaercher also said the current calculations for the levee takes long-term capital costs into account for new ambulances and other expenses for both services.

Denise Strissel of the Rudyard Ambulance Service said she has more specific estimations of the two-year, five-year and 10-year costs of the service, which she's planning to give to the commission to be taken under consideration.

Hill County Clerk and Recorder Sue Armstrong clarified that the money collected for the service would not go into the general fund, but would be kept in a separate fund controlled by the board.

Miller seemed skeptical of this plan.

"We had one of those and it just went away one year. ... I'm a little bit not on the believing side," she said.

Miller asked about the fee the ambulance service charges to out of city calls.

Solomon and Kaercher said that fee was an attempt to make up for the lack of funding they were getting from the county, but it didn't make much of a difference because of Medicare and Medicaid.

"It didn't help that much because 90 percent of the calls were Medicaid and Medicare, which have a flat rate," Solomon said.

He said if this county-wide district were to pass the fee would be taken away.

Another attendee asked about what kind of protections are in place that will ensure the Rudyard service gets a fair shake on this proposed board.

Wendland said the board couldn't be formed until the county-wide district was voted for. But he said the first round of board members would likely be appointed with staggered term limits.

He said the goal is to get the proposal on the ballot this year, which is why these meetings are being held, otherwise the problem can't be solved for another year at least.

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Havre Fire Department Chief Mel Paulson speaks Tuesday during an ambulance district meeting in Hingham about the size of Havre's ambulance coverage range.

Elizabeth Campbell asked if the county and city have made plans for the future to make sure that the district is not looking for more funding every few years.

Kaercher said the proposal will be using floating mills to address future expenses in the event that the taxable value of the city or county experience significant fluctuations.

"If the taxable value drops in either one of those entities we have the ability to raise those dollars," he said.

"We are trying to think about this in a way that we're not down here again in five years saying, 'Hey, we need more money,'" Kaercher added.

Wendland said these plans for a county-wide district are not set in stone and the county and city want to listen.

"We're open to ideas," he said.

A second public meeting is set in Havre at the Great Northern Fairgrounds Community Center at 6:30 tonight.

 

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