GUEST EDITORIAL: Is The Ambulance Tax District A Good Idea For Our Community?
April 5, 2017
In talking with a variety of people, both in and out of this proposed tax district, the general consensus is people are tired of hearing about it. Unfortunately, it is the elephant in the room and cannot be ignored. Not only does avoiding the problem allow the problem to continue, but will erode the trust of those who do. Together, we can get through this. Property owners living within Whitehall School District, excluding Whitehall proper, have been receiving their protest documents from Jefferson County. This procedural document was missed by the County Commission and the County Attorney in the original process. Please read the document carefully, follow the directions, and mail to the County Clerk and Recorder. It is important to take a few minutes to do this; the County built ‘assumptions’ into the text. You matter! (Please note that the cost for the district is not in this notice. The County cannot set the fee; it is set by the board of directors after the district is formed.)
The protest documents and published notice of the hearing set for 16 May are set by Montana law. The reason why some people received one notice and others received as many as 14, are how properties are shown on the county tax records. It is assumed that those properties will be taxed as part of the district. What is an Ambulance Tax District? It is a special service district in a defined area (Whitehall High School District) where the governing body (County Commission) levies an assessment or additional property taxes in order to provide extra services (Emergency Medical Service) to residents of that area. A special service district can be formed if the County Commission: determines that it is not possible or practicable to provide this service county-wide, is economically feasible to provide this service without unreasonable or burdensome annual tax, and that there is a demonstrable demand for the proposed service. Other than statement of opinion, there is no data that supports this determination and it is the County’s responsibility to demonstrate this need. If there is significant opposition, the Commission would typically not go forward with the formation of the district. This is difficult to say when the petition for the district failed in 2015 because it lacked public support and the Commission has continued moving forward regardless.
Special districts often are the result of promotion by special interests which feel that they can control a district better than a division of local government. Service districts are not a separate government but operate with administrative and fiscal independence from our local government. Accountability is crucial when utilizing public money for any business model. So far, a business model for this tax district is not publicly available. No business model also leads to the conclusion that there is no demonstration of feasibility or viability. Residents of the proposed tax district have been put in a position to form a tax-based ambulance district or to continue with a tax-free service area. (This is about money, not people.) Residents who reside in the town limits will have no say in either position, even though they will be affected.
The town residents are who will bear the burden of paying for the current ambulance barn, if the district is formed, as there is not enough income generated to support two ambulance services. Also, residents and those who reside in Madison and Butte-Silver Bow counties, but in the service area, will not have to pay the same tax as district residents but will reportedly be paying more for services.