THE WAY WE SEE IT: Use county tax money to support ambulance service | Opinion

Leaders of Citizens’ Ambulance Service, the predominant emergency medical response agency in Indiana County, have drafted the agency’s 2023 budget and, to no one’s surprise, it shows a dramatic shortfall of expected revenue to meet anticipated expenses.

Chief Operating Officer B.J. Pino, board President Bill Staffen and various other directors and administrative officers have embarked on another round of visits to local government meetings to request public sector donations to enable CAS to answer every medical emergency reported to 911.

The Indiana Gazette believes the ambulance company shouldn’t need to knock on every door at every borough and township, but should make its case only once — at the Indiana County Courthouse.

Annually, Citizens’ has tried to rebuild its regional membership program, a plan that offers 50 percent discounts on ambulance transport service costs that aren’t covered by a patient’s insurance. Population losses and general stretching of household budgets have eaten away at membership participation rates. Ideally, with 100 percent participation at rates of $75 per household or $65 for senior citizen homeowners, “we would not be having this conversation,” Staffen told the Homer City Borough council this week.

Unfortunately, Citizens’ had the same conversation with Center Township supervisors and will have similar ones with other municipal boards in the coming weeks.

Citizens’ work paid off in 2021 as several municipalities donated money from their local budgets to chip away at CAS’ deficit for this year. (White Township offered a $50,000 match that encouraged other local communities make at least $50,000 in pledges.) So far, Citizens’ has kept the doors open at all six of its ambulance stations spread throughout the county and has kept medics on duty every hour of every day.

The discussion in Homer City included mention of the borough’s power to assess a separate tax to subsidize ambulance service (0.5 mill above and beyond the cap on the real estate tax for day-to-day operations). Recognizing the unlikelihood that all 38 boroughs and townships would impose an ambulance tax locally, Councilman Cal Cecconi recommended a single countywide EMS tax.

That can’t happen, county Commissioner Chairman Mike Keith told the council, because state law doesn’t allow counties to do that.

In that discussion, Councilman Cecconi charged that the state Legislature has failed in its duty to serve citizens by not empowering counties to institute an ambulance tax. Lawmakers “should do their job or get out,” Cecconi said.

As the Gazette sees it, another special tax shouldn’t be necessary. The county shouldn’t use the lack of one as an excuse for not stepping up to promise its 84,000 residents that they can expect an ambulance just as they expect a fire truck or police car in an emergency.

Blaming state “inaction” is a red herring in the argument. It should be known that the Legislature has not ignored or failed to sympathize with ambulance companies’ needs.

State Rep. Jim Struzzi and state Sen. Joe Pittman told the Gazette in response that the General Assembly has provided many tools for counties and EMS agencies to make sure an ambulance will respond when someone dials 911.

To the point, counties can support fire and EMS with direct support from the general fund or their annual Marcellus Shale (“impact tax” paid by drillers) proceeds, Pittman said.

Pike County is one that already has committed county revenue to match funds from municipalities, Struzzi reported.

Struzzi cited two recent state laws that “address issues EMS providers are facing due to a lack of staffing” and three others that push cash to ambulance service providers. Struzzi said six other items of pending legislation also could broadly serve first responders with finances, personnel and even safety education to reduce demand for EMS care.

“The strain on EMS is a statewide issue and while we have done a great deal at the state level already, we also need to be a larger part of this funding solution,” Pittman told the Gazette. “I am committed to being a partner in the effort and commend the county and local governments for stepping forward in such a significant way to ensure this life-saving service remains a phone call away.”

Struzzi said some of the onus remains on the elected borough council members and township supervisors in the communities across the state.

“It should be noted the provision of EMS is primarily a local government responsibility; Acts 7, 8, 9 and 31 of 2008 effectively require such responsibility,” Struzzi said. “It is true that there is no statute authorizing a specific ‘EMS’ tax like the ones that exist for local governments. At the same time, there is nothing prohibiting counties from using their general revenue to provide assistance … under the umbrella of public health and safety.”

Can that be done at levels comparable to ones that residents now voluntarily pay (or forego)? Absolutely, and this is why The Gazette supports the idea of using county tax money.

Citizens’ budget gurus have already run the numbers. The agency has asked the county for $1.53 million to balance its next budget. Based on 2020 tax rates and property valuations, the county could raise that money with 0.32 mill of real estate tax.

The Gazette calculated the need with 2022 tax rate and valuation. The result is virtually the same.

An increase of 0.32 mill would raise the property tax by $32 for the owner of a home valued at $100,000. A homeowner in a $200,000 property would pay $64 more. That’s still a dollar less than the discount CAS membership fee offered to senior citizens.

Keith, who also is a member of Citizens’ board of directors, can be a champion for the cause. He worked years ago for Citizens’ and has decades of membership in Clymer Volunteer Fire Department. His home community, Rayne Township, actually is the only Indiana County municipality to see the light and enact a dedicated 0.5-mill tax for EMS.

Local governments play a part in assuring clean water, sanitary sewage treatment, good roads, police protection and the myriad of services provided by fire companies. Assuring emergency medical response should be a high priority on that list.