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City Council OK's utility fee to help fund ambulance service

No one can accuse Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell of being long-winded. Not after last night's response to Mayor Ed Prilucik's request for a brief explanation on a proposal to initiate a new ambulance utility fee.

"I think it's a really good idea and we ought to just do it," Stockwell simpered good naturedly.

Stockwell's dead-panning one-liner brought a hearty chuckle from all the Council members. But in the end they all agreed with him, voting unanimously to adopt the new fee that will help ensure the existing city-operated ambulance service will stay up and running.

For most city residents the $3 ambulance fee that will be assessed on their monthly utility bills won't be something foreign to them. Up until this past summer, local residents had been paying a similar household tax, which helped fund the city's ambulance service. That tax was repealed, though, when a judicial ruling disallowed a similar household tax in the City of Kennewick.

Since then, Stockwell and city staff have worked on putting together an ambulance utility fee to replace the household tax, one they believe will pass muster. Stockwell detailed for Council that Washington state statute allows municipalities to provide ambulance services as a city utility. He said the new ambulance utility fee draws on utility mechanisms and procedures that are currently being used for other city utilities, such as water and sewer services.

The glaring difference between the two assessments is that nobody within the city is exempt from paying the new ambulance utility fee. Unlike the old household tax, the new utility ordinance establishes base charges for different "utility zones." Private households will pay a base charge of $3 per month. Businesses and industrial firms, as well as churches and schools, will also be assessed a monthly base charge using what Stockwell describes as an "equivalant residential unit" (EDU) calculation. The EDU will be calculated by dividing the number of employees by a factor of 3.6, which is the average number of people living in a dwelling in Sunnyside based on the latest Census information. The number of EDU's will then be multiplied by $3 to determine a monthly base utility charge.

As an example, a business with 36 employees would calculate out to 10 EDU's, and at a rate of $3 each, the monthly fee for that business would be $30.

The new ambulance utility fee ordinance limits the number of employees a business has to claim, capping the total at 101 workers. For large employers such as this, it will amount to an $84 monthly charge. Also, churches will be exempt from paying more than $3 per month.

The fees for those city residents who use the city-operated ambulance service will be lower than the ambulance fees charged to those who reside outside the utility zone. As an example, a basic life support call would be billed out at $442 for a city resident, $752 for someone living outside the ambulance utility zone.

In one of his closing statements to Council before last night's vote was taken, Stockwell said by approving the ordinance it will help ensure the city will be able to continue to provide the ambulance service it presently offers.

Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Farmer cast the only unfavorable light on the proposal, saying he still wasn't in favor of businesses being assessed the fee. But he said in terms of safety and concern for the citizens of Sunnyside, he saw he had little choice but to go along with the majority.

"While I don't like it, I'll vote for it," Farmer said.

The Council then proceeded to unanimously adopt the ordinance. It will take effect Jan. 1, 2005. It is estimated that the new utility fee will generate approximately $200,000 next year for the city.

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