Arlington residents oppose proposed $15 utility fee

A public hearing is scheduled during Monday’s City Council meeting.

ARLINGTON — A proposed $15 utility fee to support emergency medical services has drawn opposition from some who say they can’t afford it and want a vote.

A public hearing is scheduled during Monday’s City Council meeting, 7 p.m. at 110 E. Third St. The city has received more than two dozen emails and letters about the fee. They are included in the materials for Monday’s meeting.

One person wrote in support of the proposal. A few had questions. The others were opposed.

“This $15 fee should appear on my trash bill instead of hidden in my already huge water bill because it’s pure garbage,” wrote Lenny Jensen in an email to the city.

The fee would address concerns about emergency call response times and the increase in problems related to homelessness, mental illness and drug use, according to the city. Though there is new construction in Arlington, the growth is not bringing enough revenue to cover the EMS costs.

John Meno expressed support for the fee, though he expected most other written comments would oppose it.

“With that in mind, I’m taking the time to say that I support this as a homeowner and business owner,” he wrote. “You’ve done your research and I trust the council members.”

The fee would be added to monthly water-sewer-stormwater bills for homes and businesses. It would be directed into an account specifically for EMS.

City leaders have been working on finding a stable source of funding for EMS for years. The budget consists of property taxes, fees charged for ambulance trips, and contracts with communities that pay Arlington for ambulance service. There is a $1.5 million gap between what those bring in and how much the city says is needed.

The city’s general fund has been tapped to fill the gap. The utility fee would free up general fund dollars for other needs, the city said. Those include hiring three more police officers and three firefighter paramedics. Two officers would be added right away. The other hires would happen over the next couple of years. The money also could go toward a domestic violence coordinator, a second police support officer and to keep an embedded social worker if grant support ends.

“While I have no doubt that there is a need for additional police offers, firefighters, etc., I do not feel that it is appropriate to add this fee to our water and sewer bill,” Jill Clark wrote to the city. “Just by calling it an Ambulance Utility Fee does not make it a utility. Our utility bill should be just that, water and sewer.”

City leaders considered several options for funding emergency medical services: increases to the EMS or general property tax levies, or to the sales tax. They found that any of those would require approval by voters, and none were expected to bring in enough revenue. The City Council can approve a utility fee without a public vote.

A number of written comments came from people who wrote that they are retired and on a fixed income. Low-income seniors or disabled residents could apply for a 40 percent discount, the city said.

Another point of contention was the timing.

“When setting the public hearing we did recognize that some people will be out of town for the 4th of July holiday,” city officials wrote in a frequently asked questions page. “The city has its work to complete and cannot necessarily work around holidays and special occasions … (W)e were concerned that some would feel they could not provide input due to the holiday, which is why we directly encouraged anyone with comments to provide those to the city in writing ahead of the hearing.”

The council might vote on the utility fee Monday or wait until a later meeting. Comments can be emailed to kbanfield @arlingtonwa.gov in advance.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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