When SafeTech Solutions presented its long-awaited report to the Johnson County Rural Health District, it came as no surprise that our community has excellent ambulance service. Both ambulance services in Buffalo and Kaycee earned praise for the quality of care and patient satisfaction. The ambulance care providers, district board members or the community-at-large have never disputed that fact.

It was shocking, however, to learn that SafeTech found current spending levels to be sustainable over the long term. Unfortunately, that conclusion was based on the faulty premise that district tax revenues would either remain steady or improve over time.

According to SafeTech’s report, fully three-quarters of the ambulance services operating budget is provided through district tax support and rapidly diminishing reserves. Those revenues have fallen precipitously over the last decade and continue to fall as county valuations decline due to a downturn in the energy industry. There is virtually no one on the county or state level that believes Johnson County’s valuation will hold or increase in the foreseeable future.

Already, county commissioners have tightened the belt making steep cuts in spending across all departments in anticipation of further declines in tax revenues due to falling county valuations.

SafeTech interviewed a variety of sources including board members, service providers and others in government and the community for the $30,000 study. It is simply not plausible that had the question been asked about the future of tax revenues that anyone would have told SafeTech to expect an optimistic financial outlook.

While the economy in Johnson County remains strong and is even growing in many sectors, our antiquated tax system, based mostly upon property valuations and energy production, has caused rapidly declining tax collections, straining state, county and local budgets.

It is disappointing that SafeTech appears to have missed this point. Otherwise, they may have presented a more useful report on how the rural health district can move forward with high quality ambulance care, in light of diminishing tax revenues.

The report was not a total loss, however, as some valuable information surfaced. SafeTech told the district that the intermingling of people, space and finances is problematic and could present the appearance of conflicts of interest. This information will prove invaluable to the district to become more transparent in the future. They also recommended that Buffalo EMS and the district attempt to resolve their differences and work together to develop a new contract that includes greater accountability for both parties.

SafeTech indicated that the cost of providing quality ambulance care in Johnson County is below national averages, as were the rates charged for services. It remains unknown where costs stand based on statewide averages.

While the report had shortcomings, it is good to know for certain that the level of ambulance care in Johnson County is quite good. Further, the district has some direction on how to become more transparent with taxpayer resources. Unfortunately, the most pressing question of how to continue to provide quality ambulance services with diminishing tax revenue support was left unanswered and the district will be forced to come up with solutions on their own.

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