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Ambulance services levy topic of town hall meeting

GRANDVIEW - Although few people turned out for last night's town hall meeting regarding proposition number 1 to be voted on in the general election, Prosser Memorial Hospital CEO Jim Tavery said he feels it is important to educate the public any way he can.

He said, "This is a topic I am passionate about and I am doing all I can to educate the public about proposition number one."

Tavery believes funding ambulance services in the Lower Yakima Valley is important for providing citizens with services that work toward saving lives.

He began with a history of the Prosser Memorial Hospital ambulance service, stating the hospital acquired the service from American Ambulance. That company was privately owned by Prosser's Rusty Holmes.

Holmes sought prospective buyers for the ambulance company in 1999 because he wanted to retire. He approached both city and county governments with the idea in mind that they might buy him out. Unfortunately, the municipalities felt the added cost of running an ambulance service was not worthwhile.

That is where Prosser Memorial Hospital came in, according to Tavery. He said he was advised against the purchase of American Ambulance. He had been told Medicare and Medicaid didn't pay reimbursements on a consistent basis.

However, Tavery and the Prosser Memorial Hospital board of directors decided to go against that advice due to the fact that there was a need in the Lower Yakima Valley for services.

The ambulance service, which served an area of approximately 1,000 square miles, became the responsibility of the hospital in 2000.

The hospital has stations in Grandview, Prosser and Richland. The Richland station is operated 12 hours each day and all three stations support local fire departments.

One problem that rose as a result of the purchase was the fact that those who had been volunteers for Holmes felt their time should be compensated. "They (volunteers) had a feeling that the hospital had better funding than Rusty (Holmes)," said Tavery.

He said another problem came about when an audit was conducted in 2004. During that audit, the person performing the audit informed the hospital that the ambulance service did not qualify for cost reimbursements due to the fact that there were other ambulance services in place within a 35-mile radius.

"We tried to explain that those ambulance services did not want to serve the same area as we did," Tavery said, later clarifying the other ambulance services were fine with mutual aid services, but not as primary services.

Unfortunately, the argument was lost to the law. Tavery said the hospital has been working toward gaining legislative action to remove the 35-mile radius clause from federal law.

In the meantime, the hospital lost approximately $425,000 in funding as a result of the legality.

With the rise in fuel and operations costs, the ambulance service has a need for additional funding. That funding was provided temporarily by the municipalities served by Prosser Memorial Hospital's ambulance service.

"Grandview led the way," Tavery said, stating the municipalities are unable to continue covering the costs associated with the service.

He said there is a cost savings associated with Prosser Memorial Hospital owning the ambulance service. "The funding is spread out in a wider economic base throughout the region with the hospital's ownership," he stated.

Using Benton City as an example, he said the economic base in that community is limited and its ambulance service is provided at a higher tax rate than the proposed 25 cents per $1,000 assessment on property.

Benton City currently has a tax of 55ยข property tax for every $1,000. Tavery said Sunnyside's utility tax is approximately $3.75 per month and Aberdeen's is $12.88.

"Proposition number one is the lowest at $2 per month," said Tavery.

Funding from proposition number one would generate approximately $217,000 annually for services in the Lower Yakima County. He said Benton County has yet to propose such funding to its voters, therefore the local governments will continue to provide funding at this time.

Tavery said studies have also been done regarding the cost of having city services take on the responsibility of the ambulance service. One such study was a business plan in the city of Grandview.

"The city would have to pass a 50 cent per $1,000 levy because of the economy," he stated.

"Economically, it has been discovered proposition number one would save community members money," Tavery concluded.

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