Voters in Yacolt and the northeastern portion of Clark County will decide whether or not to approve a one-year property tax levy that would fund dedicated emergency service in some of the county’s most rural areas.
North Country EMS (NCEMS) has placed a measure on the August ballot for an excess levy that, if approved, would cost property owners an estimated $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2022.
The revenues from the levy account for slightly less than a quarter of the district’s annual operating budget, North Country EMS Chief Shaun Ford said. Though the taxes will fund operations for three to four years, the levy can only be in effect for one year, per state law.
The district last ran an excess levy in 2017 that passed by nearly 90 percent in Yacolt and more than 80 percent in Clark County. That year’s levy was for an estimated $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Ford said this year’s rate is lower because property values in the district increased.
The district runs periodical excess levies due to restrictions on how much an EMS district can tax on a longer-term basis. The maximum levy rate for an EMS district is 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, Ford said, which is lower than other taxing districts like fire protection and school districts.
“If we had a higher levy rate … say it was $1 per $1,000, we wouldn’t have to run an excess levy,” Ford said.
The district covers the northeastern portion of Clark County and the area of Cowlitz County Fire District 7, which includes the southeastern part of the county along the Lewis River and a portion of Skamania County to the east.
NCEMS staffs two ambulances 24 hours a day year-round with a paramedic and emergency medical technician, and a third ambulance is available with the on-duty chief officer, Ford said. Ford is also chief of Clark County Fire District 13 and has his salary split between the two districts.
Although the district had to make adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ford said costs from those changes were paid out through federal mechanisms. This year’s excess levy would fund the same things as the measure that was approved in 2017.
Much of the precautions put in place in response to the pandemic have been lifted for personnel in the station based on guidance from the Department of Labor and Industries. But when responding to a call, the employees wear masks regardless of their vaccination status as NCEMS provides medical service, Ford said.
NCEMS formed in the 1970s because the rural area it serves would have had long wait times for emergency medical responses without a dedicated service, Ford said. He said currently the district’s average response time in the district is about nine minutes.
“When you consider how rural our district is, that’s pretty good,” Ford said.
He said without the district, the wait time would be between 45 to 50 minutes because ambulances would have to come out of Vancouver or Longview.
Taxpayers in the district have their insurance billed when receiving service, but no bill comes from the district itself for those individuals, Ford said.
Although voters historically have shown overwhelming support for the district’s ballot measures, Ford said the biggest concern going into the election is voter turnout. Excess levies follow a formula that would essentially require at least 2,085 “yes” votes from eligible voters in Clark County, 187 from Yacolt, and 206 from eligible voters in Cowlitz County. If those totals are greater than 60 percent of the total votes cast, the measure is approved.
“That’s our biggest concern is that enough people won’t vote,” Ford said.
Should turnout not meet the requirement, the district already has approval to run the measure again in November.
Ballots for the 2021 primary election are due by 8 p.m. on election day, which is Tuesday, Aug. 3.