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Lawrence considers 911, EMS taxes

Jul. 30, 2013 @ 11:35 PM

IRONTON -- The Lawrence County Board of Commissioners could ask voters to approve $1.6 million in new property taxes for the county Emergency Medical Services ambulance service and another $1 million for 911 dispatching services at Thursday's regular board meeting.

County Auditor Jason Stephens said Lawrence County has the lowest effective tax rate in Ohio. He said the county is looking at a $45,000 deficit for 911 dispatching services by the end of the year. He provided board members with revenue projections for a two mill EMS levy and a 1.25 mill levy for 911 dispatching services.

If voters were to approve both property tax levies, it would cost a homeowner with property valued at $100,000 an extra $113.75 per year in property taxes ($70 for ambulance services and $43.75 for 911 services).

The board is facing an Aug. 7 deadline to put the issue before voters in the November general election.

The dispatching center overseen by Sheriff Jeff Lawless has picked up additional duties including dispatching ambulances and Ironton police in the past few years.

The half-percent sales tax raises $2.5 million per year and that covers the cost of the ambulance service, dispatchers, road patrol deputies and the county Emergency Management Agency. County officials are worried about increasing costs, including jail costs, and a possible $1 million increase in health care cost next year.

"It's up to us to decide what type of community we want to have," said Commission President Bill Pratt. He said 911 and ambulances are vulnerable to cuts. The county needs a revenue source not subject to court-ordered budgets that provide for the courts and prosecutor's office.

Earl "Buddy" Fry, director of the ambulance district, said he would like to have a dedicated funding source for EMS services and newer ambulances. "We can't do any long-range planning the way things are right now."

Fry and Lawless don't know from year to year what their budget will be. Lawless is asking board members for more money for cruisers.

In other action Tuesday, the board heard a report from its health care provider, United Health Care, that the county could face increases in health care costs of 30 to 40 percent, something that could cost about $1 million, due to about 10 claims averaging $145,000 this year.

"It would be impossible to absorb over a $1 million increase in insurance costs," Pratt said.

Linda Quick, a representative of United Health Care, said employees covered under the county's health insurance plan have had 10 major claims of more than $50,000 this year compared to only one the previous year. "You have had a lot of patient admissions and a huge increase in trips to the emergency room," she said.

Emergency room costs covered under the plan are up 246 percent, she said. "Some months we paid out 40 percent more than we took in," she said. Employees can't pay more than 9.5 percent of their gross income in health insurance costs under the health care law effective Jan. 1, she said. One change likely will be higher deductible costs for employees.

"These are tough challenges," Commissioner Les Boggs said. "We'll do the best we can with what we have to work with."

Officials decide to meet at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 21 to look at ways to cut costs.

Commissioners also authorized Prosecutor Brigham Anderson to apply for a $290,000 grant to the Ohio Department of Corrections that requires no local matching funds. "It's a competitive grant," he said.

The grant could divert 250 people out of county jail over an 18-month period, a move that would lower jail costs. The grant would make some low-level, non-violent offenders eligible for pre-trial diversion instead of going to jail, he said.