Summit County’s $30 million question: An overview of ballot item 1A
October 24, 2014
Editor's note: This is the last installment in a four-part series on Summit County's referred measure 1A, which will appear on ballots being mailed out Oct. 14. The ballot initiative bundles together 911 upgrades, ambulance service funding and water quality improvements. Part 1 of the series focused on 911 upgrades; part 2 looked into the county's struggling ambulance service; and part 3 examined plans to improve water quality in the area.
Summit County's ballot item 1A is asking voters to authorize a tax increase to fund a bundle of public safety and water quality initiatives.
In total, 1A is requesting $3.73 million in temporary annual funding over eight years, almost $30 million at sunset — for 911 system upgrades, ambulance service and water quality improvements.
Though the ballot language does not specify the amount of funding each portion would receive, county officials say that an estimated $1.45 million per year will go toward updating Summit's emergency dispatch system, $1.65 million is earmarked annually for ambulance service and more than $600,000 is set aside for water quality improvements such as toxic mine reclamation hazardous household waste disposal.
The ballot item, if supported by voters, would result in $19.25 per year per $100,000 of residential property value for eight years.
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If approved, ballot item 1A would generate $11.6 million over eight years to make several changes to the county's 911 dispatch system: A new Next Generation 911 system enabling texting and photo sharing, two new staff positions, an expansion of the county's communication tower network and additional capital expenses such as a new phone system.
Summit County officials say that the current 911 system is stymied by aging technology and increasingly unreliable funding.
In Summit County, 911 funding is partially provided by surcharges on newly created phone numbers, including both landlines and cell phone lines registered locally. Landlines are down 20 percent form 2007 to 2013. That trend is expected to continue as more and more people go wireless. And unless people register their cellphones in Summit County, the money won't go toward funding local 911 service.
In 2014, those $1.50-per-line surcharges are expected to amount to about $619,000 for Summit County. The county has requested that the Colorado Public Utility Commission allow it to increase the surcharge to $1.95. However, officials say it is unclear where the commission will approve the fee increase or if such an increase will offset expected drops in revenue.
The other 911-related problem the county faces is how its current system does not match up well with caller behavior patterns that have been shaped by new wireless technologies.
People are increasingly reliant on their smartphones, and not their sense of direction, to find their way around.
A frequent roadblock dispatchers encounter with callers is a lack of geographic awareness.
"What's the location of the emergency?" is the first question a 911 dispatcher will ask. However, about 25 percent of callers cannot answer that question with any measure of specificity, county officials say. They see mountains. Trees.
"In a lot of cases, people really don't have any idea where they are," said Bill Pessemier, the director of communications for Summit County, in a 2013 interview. "If we don't have that address, it can cause a delay in time, maybe a minute or two or three. People rely on the GPS capability. They don't realize it's not as accurate as they think. People still assume that when you call 911, dispatchers know exactly where they are."
But in a time that is increasingly forsaking landlines — 80 percent of 911 calls now come from cell phones — it is becoming more difficult for dispatchers to ascertain where to send emergency responders. Even with GPS, cell phone locations are harder to pinpoint than landline locations.
Cell phones, particularly smartphones, do have one advantage over landlines, though. They can send texts and photos.
Many 911 callers assume dispatchers can receive such communications. However, Summit County's current system, which is roughly 10 years old, cannot. Most 911 dispatch systems in the state cannot receive texts or photos.
For Summit's emergency responders that kind of information can be critical in a place known for its vast swaths of rugged backcountry and poorly marked buildings, as well as hordes of bandwidth-hungry, iPhone-clutching visitors. A text also is more likely to get to a 911 dispatcher if the communications system is taxed during the high season.
County officials say the funding will enable it to shave call response times significantly. According to the National Fire Protection Association, a 911 emergency call should be processed in 90 seconds, 90 percent of the time. Summit County's call times, including non-emergency calls, are currently double that on average, Vargo said.
Ballot item 1A will infuse the cash-strapped Summit County Ambulance Service with $13.2 million over eight years.
Summit County's is one of the last remaining ambulance services on the Western Slope that operates as an enterprise fund. That means it's part of the county government, but financed like a business.
For a long time, the model worked. Its collection rates once dwarfed those of other counties', with the agency recouping nearly 70 percent of its billings while other services struggled to hit even 50 percent.
Then, in 2007, the Great Recession hit. Fewer people came to vacation in Summit County and call volumes dropped in the High Country. A rise in unemployment meant that even when calls did come in, more patients were uninsured or underinsured.
In addition, a growing number of people — roughly 15 percent of transports — have health care coverage through Medicare, which pays out only 28 cents on every dollar billed by the ambulance service.
"By accepting Medicare, we are legally obligated to completely write off the remaining 72 cents and cannot bill the patient for the balance," ambulance service director Marc Burdick told the Summit Daily in a 2013 interview.
Today, the collection rate is 60 percent. Four of 10 transports don't pay for service. Collection rates are projected to drop to 52 percent over the next eight years, according to county officials.
Long-distance transports to Denver used to be SCAS' lifeblood, generating more than $3,000 per call. That's almost double the revenue from an in-county transport.
However, long-distance transports began to evaporate after St. Anthony Summit Medical Center opened its doors, eliminating the need to take many patients to hospitals on the Front Range.
"The hospital opening was an extremely good thing for our community. It's exactly what our community needed," Burdick told the Daily. "But it affected us."
The current funding deficit is $600,000. County officials say that is likely to grow to $2 million in eight years as collection rates decrease and operational expenses like fuel, vehicle replacements and employee costs increase.
"We've done a good job for a long time of operating the ambulance as a fee-for-service enterprise, but there isn't an ambulance service in the mountains that can survive without a second source of revenue," Commissioner Thomas Davidson said in an interview last month. "It's important to note that we'll still be providing the service at a better rate and that offering a discount is incredibly important for our local population."
Over the past year, Summit County officials explored ways to resolve the ambulance service's financial problems, including privatizing the agency or merging it with fire service agencies with emergency medical response capabilities. The county recently reached a partnership with the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District. It's also pursuing partnerships with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue and Copper Mountain Fire Rescue.
However, county officials believe that an increase in property taxes is necessary to maintain basic services.
The measure would provide about $1.65 million per year in funding for ambulance services. Should the ballot measure pass, county residents and property owners who receive ambulance services would be eligible for a fee discount in order to recognize their contributions to the system via the mill levy.
"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," assistant county manager Scott 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."
Mountain drinking water is supposed to be some of the cleanest, purest, tastiest water on earth.
In Summit County, though, water and the greater environment face continued threats from toxic metals leftover from mining generations ago and hazardous waste improperly disposed of today.
Summit County officials want to make it easier to protect water quality and clean up environmental dangers, so they've designated that part of the funding raised by the tax increase proposed in ballot measure 1A be used for those purposes.
About $630,000 a year would go toward environmental protection efforts, including cleaning up the toxic impacts of old mines.
"It's a really conservative ask," said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. "We could spend truly billions of dollars to actually clean up the mess that we have."
Assistant county manager Thad Noll said a little more than half of the environmental protection portion — or $300,000 a year — would go toward mining reclamation and habitat restoration projects, like the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup underway in the Peru Creek drainage near Montezuma and the Swan River restoration project along Tiger Road near Breckenridge.
"We always go after lots of funding sources to pay for those things," Noll said, describing a reliance on partnerships with other government agencies and nonprofits.
The county doesn't have a designated fund for cleanups and pays for its portion of project funding with money from the general fund or the Open Space and Trails Department budget, he said.
The rest of the roughly $630,000 of funding raised every year from the measure would be used to encourage residents to properly discard household hazardous waste.
Noll said the county would eliminate the current fee residents pay to drop off hazardous waste at the landfill and start offering disposal on Saturday mornings for those who can't drop off waste Monday through Friday.
The money would also finance a few hazardous waste collection events around the county every year.
"We really want to make it easy for people to do the right thing," Noll said.
The county has tried various fee structures for hazardous waste disposal at the landfill, he said, with the idea that people generating more hazardous waste in their homes should pay more to dispose of it. That hasn't worked.
"Most people don't want to pay that fee, and the fee doesn't come close to the cost of getting rid of it," he said.
People end up putting hazardous waste like paint in with their garbage, throwing away pesticides in their yards and flushing prescriptions pills down their drains, Noll said.