FARMINGTON — If voters strike down a measure to continue paying an emergency medical services gross receipts tax in March, the county will have to raise property taxes or cut services, San Juan County government officials said.

Voters will determine whether a tax that funds emergency response throughout the county can continue indefinitely.

County voters overwhelmingly agreed to start paying the tax in 2003. It was approved 2,341 votes to 670 during a special election in March of that year, according to county documents.

The tax which is called the Emergency Communications and Emergency Medical and Behavioral Health Services Tax amounts to 0.18 percent of all gross receipts in San Juan County.

The tax is used to fund San Juan Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Services and the county's emergency dispatch center.

"Because it's a gross receipts tax it spreads the burden to all people in San Juan County, not just the property owners," San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said. "Everybody who spends money in San Juan County, including visitors," pays for emergency response programs.

The tax is expected to generate $7.1 million this year. The most the tax ever generated was $8.3 million in 2009.

If the tax is struck down, the county and all three cities Farmington, Bloomfield and Aztec would have to pay for the services.


Advertisement

Local governments would go back to an agreement they had before the tax began where Farmington and San Juan County each pay for 44 percent of the emergency dispatch center and EMS services and Aztec and Bloomfield each pay six percent, said Linda Thompson, the county's chief financial officer.

"If this tax were to go away ... it would be a huge strain on the budgets of all four entities," Carpenter said. "There would be a reduction in services from the county (which would have) to come up with $3 million."

Carpenter said it would be unlikely there would be drastic cuts to public safety departments, like the sheriff's office or the dispatch center.

But there may be a reduction in public-works crews or other county departments, he said.

If the county couldn't make up the money by slashing other programs, property taxes might have to be raised, he said.

Emergency medical services and the county's dispatch center made improvements to their operations and also expanded services since the gross receipts tax was approved 10 years ago, Carpenter said.

San Juan Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Services had a $6.1 million budget in 2011, according to the department's most-recent annual report.

Of that, $2.9 million came from the EMS tax. The department also received $1.6 million from Medicare, $500,000 from Medicaid, $1 million from insurance and $100,000 from patients.

The department's budget doesn't cover all its expenses but the hospital will continue, with help from local governments, to operate its ambulance service, said Ed Horvat, manager of the hospital's EMS program.

Demand for the services has grown significantly.

Countywide, emergency calls for ambulance services increased by 70 percent since 2000. In 1990, there were fewer than 6,000 calls for ambulance services and by 2011 there were more than 14,000 calls.

Nearly 22,000 people were treated in ambulances in 2011, according to the EMS report.

Calls to the dispatch center have increased along with the county's population in the last 10 years, Carpenter said.

Horvat said the tax has allowed the hospital's EMS department to add new technologies to its ambulances, including a program that allows ambulance paramedics to email heart monitor results to physicians waiting for the patient in the emergency room.

Carpenter said the dispatch center has also made improvements since the tax began. A recently added program will allow residents to enter important information about their home -- such as where their children sleep and how many pets are in the house -- that can be used by firefighters, police, paramedics and emergency medical technicians who enter the home during an emergency. 

Early voting for the tax will start Feb. 12 at the San Juan County Clerk's Office. Voting day is March 12 and will take place at the same convenience centers used in the last presidential election.