Bellingham battles with county over ambulance costs

Herald staff

BELLINGHAM — The city’s mayor is warning Whatcom County that if it doesn’t pay its share, he’ll cut off its ambulance service by year’s end.

The city and county have shared an ambulance service since 1974. The city has said rising costs and dropping income will force each government to pay an additional $300,000 next year, but county officials say they don’t expect to contribute more than an extra $150,000.

"Such an action is not one we relish," Mayor Mark Asmundson said in a letter to County Executive Pete Kremen this week. "Nor is it one that we believe is in the best interests of the citizens outside of Bellingham."

Kremen said the county is simply trying to ensure the ambulance program is run efficiently.

The budget for the ambulance system next year is estimated at $4.8 million. Slightly more than half comes from fees paid by patients and insurance companies.

But changes in Medicare will prevent the governments from collecting fees from Medicare patients next year. And Bellingham has added a fourth ambulance, which it wants the county to help pay for.

Asmundson said if the county can’t pay its full share, it can end the agreement and create its own ambulance service. The city and county would divide the equipment and ambulances evenly.

  • Garbage spilled: Ten cars of a train carrying garbage to Eastern Washington derailed and spilled some of their load Thursday. The accident, just before 5 a.m., didn’t injure anyone or spill toxic material, said Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Gus Melonas. The train was carrying garbage from Seattle to the landfill at Roosevelt in Klickitat County. Crews were cleaning up the mess and hoped to reopen the mainline track between Seattle and Portland by noon todayf. Meanwhile, Burlington Northern trains were detoured through the Columbia Gorge, Stampede and Stevens passes. Amtrak passengers were being bused between Seattle and Tacoma.

  • Apple windfall: Washington apple growers could receive as much as $30,000 each from the federal government to cover losses of the past two years, industry representatives say. The direct subsidies are the first ever provided to Washington apple growers, a sign of the economic distress in the industry because of unfair competition, lost foreign markets and worldwide oversupply. Poor economic conditions have hit Red Delicious growers especially hard with prices below the cost of production. Aid to growers would come in two ways. There is a $100 million provision to offset losses due to market conditions and $38 million for weather-related crop losses.

  • Praise and a raise: The Seattle School Board gave Superintendent Joseph Olchefske high praise, a 4 percent pay hike and a $1 million life-insurance policy at his second annual job-performance review. The raise boosts his annual salary to $162,000. Superintendent since February 1999, Olchefske is credited with hiring outstanding assistants and making tough decisions to fire ineffective principals in the 47,000-student district. He was also lauded for his leadership in improving fourth-grade test scores in reading and math, encouraging more students to take the SAT, implementing academic standards in elementary schools and bolstering campus safety at the district’s 96 schools.

  • Preparing for erosion: Crews are building up the banks of the Snoqualmie River in hopes of stemming the heavy erosion winter rains normally bring. The project includes layering dirt, sandbags and a natural fiber with willow branches that will eventually sprout new brush that will make the banks sturdier. Crews are working within the Endangered Species Act, which rules out the earlier practice of shoring up the riverbanks with rocks.

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