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Aspen ambulance service budget headed for red

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen’s ambulance service will see its operational budget fall into the red within four years, and to keep it in the black the district’s managers are considering everything from a property tax hike to a merger with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department.

Rich Walker, Aspen Ambulance District director, cited rising operating costs, a fixed property tax rate and annual budgetary restrictions because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

The district is likely to “go into negative numbers in the year 2012,” he told the Pitkin County commissioners this week.

“We’ve had the same mill levy since the district was formed in 1982,” Walker said after the budget presentation.

Actually, county budget figures show that the district’s mill levy has declined over the years, from 2.055 mills in 1982 to 0.176 mills now. A mill equates to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed valuation of private property.

The shrinkage of the district’s mill levy is due to TABOR, which was approved by voters as an amendment to the state constitution in the early 1990s. TABOR essentially requires a taxing district to cut its property tax rate if assessed valuations of property rise within the district’s boundaries. The goal is to keep actual tax payments level, rather than permitting them to rise with increases in an area’s property values.

Before 1982, ambulance services in the area were funded by the county, the city of Aspen and the Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH), Walker said. Those entities decided the district needed to pay its own way, and the district was created after the taxpayers gave their approval. Although it has its own budget and director, Walker said, the ambulance service is a “sub-district” of the county.

This year, the district’s income will be approximately $1.28 million in revenues from taxes, patient charges, reimbursements from AVH and other sources, Walker told the commissioners.

Its expenditures will be just over $1.5 million. The funds to pay the extra expenses, Walker said, will come out of the district’s reserves, which stood at $885,850 at the start of 2008 but will fall to $648,123 at the beginning of 2009. By 2012, according to Walker’s budget, the district will be more than $13,000 in the red.

Walker said the district’s expenses have simply outstripped its income, noting that it has increased service to a level of 24-hour on-call status, 365 days a year, at the hospital’s request.

In addition, the district is unique in the state in that it has a blanket waiver from the state emergency services department to perform high-level medical care while transporting critical patients from one hospital to another.

But the wages, benefits, training and equipment costs to provide those high-level services will be more than the district can afford as of 2012, he said.

According to Walker and County Manager Hilary Fletcher, the ambulance district and county officials will be huddling over the coming year to determine the best course of action to keep the ambulance service solvent.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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