Jefferson County voting on first EMS levy

Some critics would prefer fire, EMS agencies merge

Jefferson County Tax Levy

BEND, Ore. - Voters in Jefferson County will decide Tuesday whether they favor a permanent tax levy to pay for emergency medical services, the very first time the agency has taken these steps.

The proposed tax levy is 41 cents for every $1,000 of property value.

Currently, the ambulance agency relies on user fees and grants to fund operations, but they say that has to change.

Central Oregon is growing, and with more people, there are more emergencies, fewer volunteers, increased calls, and higher turnover.

That's why the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services District thinks it's time for a tax, so it can improve the quality of service it provides.

"If it's after 5 p.m., they're responding from home and you're having a heart attack, they can take six minutes to get here, and then respond to your call," EMS Chief Liz Heckathorn explained Thursday.

"As we know, (with) cardiac muscle, time is muscle," she said. "So we want them there a lot faster than that, but it's not fiscally possible to do that currently."

In Jefferson County, the fire district and the emergency medical service now operate as separate entities. That's one reason some oppose the levy, fearing duplication and preferring the agencies merge instead, explained Rick Allen, a former mayor of Madras.

"To supplement an inefficient, outdated, archaic system that no one else is operating under does not make sense to me," he said.  

"This is the time to bring the parties to the table to come up with a system that we should create, then analyze what the proper funding levels are and then move forward on those requests," Allen added. "I think it's the only prudent, sensible way to do this."

However, Heckathorn believes each agency is uniquely qualified to operate alone.

"Their (the fire district's) specialty is fighting fires and extracting patients, doing code enforcement, building inspections," she said.  "Our specialty is medicine. So it is actually two separate specialties, working in conjunction together. There's no duplication of services." 

But Allen said both the fire district and emergency medical services need to broaden their horizons.

"We are served by good people -- the paid workers, volunteers, students, and the board of directors are good people," he said. "Everyone wants to do it right, and I think in their own silos, they think they're doing it right. But they're doing it with blinders on, like a racehorse. We need them to all take their blinders off and look at the system as a whole, and no one has been willing to do that."

If the levy passes, the money would go toward increased training, better equipment, more community programs and competitive wages for employees.

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