Correction: The original version of this article appearing in the Nov. 5, 2019 edition of the Ardmoreite incorrectly listed the estimated tax increase for property taxes annually by about $46 per $100,000 in value due to a calculation error by the Carter County Assessor’s office. The corrected numbers show an estimated increase of about $36 per $100,000 in value. The Ardmoreite regrets the error.
Southern Oklahoma voters will have a number of important decisions to make in 2020 starting with arguably the most critical, a special election two weeks into the new year.
On Jan. 14, 2020, Carter County voters registered in the Ardmore, Plainview, Dickson, Lone Grove and Springer school districts will be asked to decide on a 3 mill ad valorem tax levy that is expected to increase property taxes annually by about $36 per $100,000 in value. Carter County Assessor Kerry Ross said the application of a mill increase can be difficult to quantify due to the cyclical nature of bonds and fluctuations in mill rates due to new, renewed or expiring bonds.
Carter County commissioners unanimously approved the ballot initiative Monday morning. The election, seeking to create an emergency medical district, would require a simple majority of 51% to pass. A similar ballot initiative failed in 2011 with 62 percent of voters rejecting the proposal.
“SOAS has been running off of grants and endowments,” District 1 commissioner Joe David McReynolds said. “That money is running out. If they close the doors, it falls back on the county commissioners to provide ambulance services and we don’t have the money to fund an ambulance service.”
McReynolds said that if approved, revenues generated would then be distributed through a bid process which would require Southern Oklahoma Ambulance Services, the county’s existing provider, to compete for the funding.
“We have to find some way to provide ambulance services to the people,” McReynolds said.
SOAS Executive Director Bob Hargis said the nonprofit’s current funding mechanisms have not been able to keep up with the increase in calls the agency has experienced in the last decade, nor has it been able to adjust to increases in cost or decreases and stagnation in reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance.
“We are already running a $700,000 a year deficit,” Hargis said. “As an agency, we have been getting further and further behind and we have not had a major tax subsidy on this side of the county since 1962.”
Hargis said under current funding mechanisms, the agency could reasonably operate for another two years, though that time-frame could be impacted significantly since the agency currently relies on community support, grants and endowments to provide the service.
“It’s not to say that more people wouldn’t jump in to help us, but as it is with our current funding sources, in two years we would have severe funding distress,” Hargis said.
Hargis said that the potential impact could include reduced availability and longer response times as well as the potential that SOAS would be unable to operate, noting that since no dedicated funding is currently in place, a lack of financial incentives would likely prevent any new services from attempting to fill the void left by a reduction or closure by SOAS.
SOAS currently maintains eight ambulances — with four in operation 24 hours a day, not including ambulances that are used to transport patients to other areas for more intensive or specialized treatment.
“Response times, if we are forced to operate with less crews, and the level of service provided could also decrease,” Hargis said. “Another big financial issue we have is with mandatory equipment needs. We have to have all new cardiac monitors installed by March 2021, that is absolutely required, the ones we have will no longer be in service. That alone will cost about half a million dollars.”
Hargis said that if the tax increase is rejected again by voters the agency would have to begin considering an “exit strategy” to determine if it could operate with reduced services and staffing or if it would ultimately need to close.
SOAS’s base ambulance rates are $700 plus $15 per mile transported, Hargis said that some metro area ambulance services start their base rate at $1,300. Private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid will only pay for some of this cost.
“The truth is, when you increase those charges, you just end up writing more off on indigent care,” Hardis said.
Hargis said the agency was on pace to respond to 8,000 calls in 2019 alone.
“This is a core service of government and this is an emergency function that government should be involved in. As a commissioner I am happy to put it forth to the people and let them decide,” District 3 commissioner Jerry Alvord said.
The deadline to register to vote in the Jan.14, 2020 special election is December 20.