The Glacier County Commissioners will ask voters once again to support a tax increase to fund the Glacier County Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The Commissioners said the deadline to finalize adding the special EMS mill levy to the primary ballot is March 6. At their meeting on Feb. 20, the Commissioners were still waiting for “exact numbers” from Chief Financial Officer Chancy Kittson on what is needed to fund EMS operations.
Chairman Michael DesRosier said the commissioners have received “pleas from the public and groups” to ensure the future of Glacier County’s EMS. “Right now, we don’t have the money to do it,” said DesRosier. He said the options the Commissioners are facing are possibly losing the service or turning it into a volunteer system.
“We’ve gotten used to a premiere EMS in Glacier County…but if we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it,” DesRosier told the crowded room of concerned citizens last week.
“The Department of Administration named a few non-essential (county) services and I believe EMS was one of them,” reminded Commissioner Tom McKay. He said he “fully supports” asking the public for financial support of EMS.
Less than a year ago, the Commissioners asked voters to support a five-year $1.6 million levy to pay for the EMS facility which was built several years ago. It was defeated 828-635.
The Commissioners also asked for $507,75.00 to fund EMS operations, on a second levy. Although it was for only one year, it also failed, 808-657. Voter turnout in the special mail-in ballot election was 24 percent.
“We didn’t provide enough information to the public last time,” said Commissioner John Overcast. “People are leery of throwing good money after bad. We definitely need it (EMS).”
DesRosier said those groups that have expressed concerns about losing the EMS should help promote the passage of the mill levy.
DesRosier claims the Commissioners “have not raised property taxes” and any increase taxpayers have seen are due to “State calculations.” According to DesRosier, Glacier County taxpayers “pay a low rate of taxes compared to other counties with fewer services.”
Northern Rockies Medical Center CEO Cherie Taylor pointed out taxpayers want to make sure the money from the mill levy, if approved, will go to the EMS. She suggested limiting the special operational levy for the EMS to two years so taxpayers can see “how it is utilized” and to buy time for other funding solutions that are in the works at the state and national level.
“People do support the EMS. Their concern is with the accountability for the money,” Taylor stressed. “A volunteer service will never work here due to the high volume in our county,” she continued. “There are lots of stakeholders who want to help.”
Taylor suggested the Commissioners be “transparent” when asking the public to support the mill levy.
McKay was in support of a two-year levy. As for the accountability of county funds, he said, “If we would have done anything wrong, we would be in jail.”
Carol McDivitt, RN, of the Glacier County Health Department asked the Commissioners how they would guarantee to the public the money will be set aside for the EMS. In her department, for example, she should have substantial cash reserves “but the money is not physically there.”
DesRosier responded the county follows state statutes and the law stipulates where the funds have to go.
Elaine Mitchell told the Commissioners she believes they can pass the mill levy by showing taxpayers how and with what funds the EMS building was paid for. “You have to be able to prove how you paid for it,” she pointed out.
DesRosier said the commissioners, CFO Kittson and EMS Director Tauna Evans are “working on language” for the mill levy and “March 6 is the date we set for ourselves.”
March 6 is also the date the Montana Secretary of State’s Office must have the County’s mail ballot plan to review and approve.
Once the details are worked out in the coming week, there will be very little time for County officials and concerned citizens to promote the EMS mill levy.
Absentee ballots for the primary election will be mailed out on May 8.