Summit County weighs ballot initiative to fund 911, ambulance improvements
Ryan Summerlin August 19, 2014
If you go…
Who: Summit County Commission
What: Public hearing
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Old Courthouse, 208 E. Lincoln Avenue in Breckenridge
— To discuss a possible ballot question for a temporary property tax mill levy to fund public safety and public health programs.
The Summit County Commission is hosting at 2 p.m. Tuesday a public hearing about proposing a temporary property tax mill levy for public health and safety programs as a question to voters on the November ballot.
Summit County assistant manager Scott Vargo said the programs that would receive funding from the mill levy, if proposed and approved in the fall, follow two main themes — protecting water quality and improving public safety services.
Several aspects of public safety are managed by the county, Vargo said, including the ambulance service and the Summit County Communications Center. Administered like a county department, the communications center houses emergency dispatchers that handle 911 calls for every town and public safety agency in the county.
Not unlike other communication centers throughout the state and across the country, Summit County’s computer-based dispatch system is antiquated compared to newer technology known as Next Generation 911. The Internet Protocol-based system allows digital information to flow between the public and emergency dispatchers. For example, residents would be able to request emergency assistance through a text message or send photos and video from a scene to dispatchers, who could then relay that information to emergency responders.
Although not yet federally mandated, local officials began exploring the costs of a Next Gen upgrade to modernize the communications center and to make it compatible with technology widely used by the public. A Next Gen systems upgrade is estimated to cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million, Vargo said.
Aside from a possible federal mandate coming soon out of Washington D.C., Vargo said local officials began looking at a communications system upgrade to improve emergency response time. Under the existing system, when dispatchers receive a 911 call they are prompted by a computer program to ask a series of questions to determine which agency needs to be sent to the scene. Once the computer makes that determination, the dispatcher has to put the caller on hold to notify the appropriate agency.
The process is much more automated in the Next Gen system, Vargo said, which allows dispatchers to identify the appropriate responding agency faster. Next Gen also knows how to sound the appropriate agency’s alarm, allowing dispatchers to remain on the line with the caller without interruptions.
Because the communications center serves as the hub for all emergency calls in the county, an intergovernmental agreement is in place that requires all agencies to contribute funds to the department’s operational costs. Those funds, however, are not substantial enough to pay for a $1 million capital project, Vargo said.
In addition to upgrades at the communications center, funds from the mill levy would also be used to help stabilize Summit County’s struggling ambulance service. Created as an enterprise fund, the ambulance service does not receive property tax dollars, but generates all of its own revenues from fees.
However, in recent years the ambulance service has seen its collection rate on bills drop from 70 to 60 percent, while its expenses continue to grow. The commission has been forced to allocate money from the general fund to subsidize the program. This year, the county set aside more than $600,000 and officials expect that subsidy to reach $1 million in the next couple of years.
Although the county recently reached a partnership with the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, more action needs to be taken before the gap between revenues and expenses becomes unmanageable, Vargo said. The intent is to create a second source of revenue for the ambulance service, which isn’t uncommon when looking at similar agencies around the state.
“The model was to run the ambulance service as an enterprise, but with revenues dwindling and expenses rising, we’re getting to the point where it will be impossible to sustain,” Vargo said. “What we’re asking isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Several ambulance services receive a portion of their funding from property taxes, including in nearby Eagle County and Steamboat Springs.”
The county needs about $3.1 million for both projects, including $1,450,000 to cover capital and operational expenses at the communications center, as well as $1,650,000 to stabilize the ambulance fund. The mill levy would sunset in eight years.
Summit County assistant manager Thad Noll said few decisions have been made about possible water quality projects because the needs are not as definitive as they are for emergency services. Among some of the general concepts are cleanup operations at old, abandoned mines and addressing hazardous materials, such household cleaners and expired prescription drugs, which enter the local drinking water system when people flush those items down their toilets, Noll said.
The commission will be discussing potential projects and trying to determine the associated costs during Tuesday’s meeting. County officials will then determine what to set as the mill rate.