During the April 2 municipal election voters in the southern half of Howell County served by the South Howell County Ambulance District (SHCAD) will be asked to consider approving a half-cent retail sales tax.
The sales tax, said district officials, would effectively reduce the property and real estate tax now levied by the district to zero.
The ballot language reads, “As provided by section 321.552 RSMo, shall the South Howell County Ambulance District mandatorily reduce the district’s property tax levy by implementing a sales tax of up to 1/2 of one cent for the purpose of providing revenues for operation of the district and thereby the total property tax levy on property within the district shall be reduced annually by an amount which reduces property tax revenues equal to 50 percent of the previous year’s sales tax revenue and is projected to totally eliminate the property tax to zero percent with revenues collected from this sales tax?”
Interim SHCAD Administrator Jolaine Lashley said the ballot language, which was recommended by the state, might seem overwhelming. She said, put simply, it asks voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to replace the property tax that exists right now.
It is expected that a sales tax could bring in between $1.2 million and $1.4 million for the district each year — currently, the district collects about $730,000 annually in property taxes.
“If the sales tax revenues are more than 50 percent over what you would collect from property tax, you can bring the property tax down to zero,” said Lashley. “Even if it’s not at that 50 percent match, we can still roll it back.”
The idea, according to Lashley and other district leaders who recently met with the Quill to explain the proposition, is to share the tax burden more evenly. About 30 percent of local ambulance rides are given to people who live outside of the district, they said.
Half of the property tax burden is carried by district residents and property owners and the other half, by business owners, they added.
South Howell County Ambulance District is bordered on the east and west by county lines and by the Arkansas state line to the south. The northern boundary arcs from a point just east of the Douglas County line on Highway 14 up to Pomona and heads eastward along N Highway.
The sales tax, district leaders said, would be paid by anyone who shops and eats within those boundaries.
“We have depleted our reserves a great deal in the last year,” said SHCAD Board Chair Troy Earls. If not for the district’s cash reserves, it would be running in the red, he added. If the sales tax is approved, the first step will be to move from operating in a deficit to rebuilding the reserves.
After that, he said, the district can focus on growth.
The revenues from the existing property tax fund about 18 percent of the district’s budget needs; in 2017, the same funds covered about 22 percent of the budget. And district leaders say that percentage will keep going down, due to rising costs and increased demand.
This year, the district has eight ambulances, five of which need to be replaced urgently. The oldest is 10 years old, and the average mileage on each vehicle is about 290,000. The cost for a bare-bones ambulance without medical equipment is $125,000; another $61,000 is needed per ambulance to make it fully operational, said leadership.
The cost to replace all five ambulances and have them fully equipped is projected to be about $930,000 — and they need to be replaced by 2021.
“That’s when they’ll break down,” said Earls. The determination is based on the life cycle of previous ambulances, he explained, and means it’s not just a matter of repairs and maintenance being too costly, but the vehicles just won’t work anymore.
In addition to funding all needed ambulance and equipment, district leaders say the sales tax will help hire more staff to address growing call volume. Ambulances with the district responded to about 5,300 calls in 2016 and about 5,613 calls in 2017. Last year, the number of calls spiked to 6,359.
The number of calls is expected to continue increasing along with the aging baby boomers — those ages 55 to 70 who represent, for the time being, the largest living adult generation.
In addition to providing emergency ambulance services, SHCAD offers nonemergency medical transport for clinical appointments, nursing home transfers and hospital discharges; a regional education center that is one of 11 in Missouri to offer national paramedic credentials; and an in-house EmComm dispatch service that allows staff to monitor emergency responders’ fatigue levels and route calls accordingly.
District leaders expect to be at the March 7 luncheon meeting of the Greater West Plains Area Chamber of Commerce to present the ballot issue and answer questions.
For more information or to request a presentation, call the district office, 256-2490.