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Fire District to add ambulance tax

Some residents of northern Carlton and southern St. Louis counties will see a new tax for 2014: an ambulance service tax, courtesy of the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD). The cost of the new tax is roughly $10 per $100,000 of property value, wh...

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Some residents of northern Carlton and southern St. Louis counties will see a new tax for 2014: an ambulance service tax, courtesy of the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD). The cost of the new tax is roughly $10 per $100,000 of property value, which means $12 per year on the average $120,000 home.

CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder sees it as an issue of fairness.

"Up to now, the three fire district members (Cloquet, Perch Lake and Scanlon) have been subsidizing the ambulance service for the other areas," Schroeder said. "Before the fire district, it was Cloquet that subsidized other areas ... for decades. That's part of the reason the fire district was formed, to evenly spread out the cost of services to all those who receive it."

Thus, for the first time in the nearly four years since it was created, CAFD plans to tax everyone served in its ambulance district, which means the three fire member cities will see a slight reduction in their taxes, because they won't be paying for non-member ambulance service now. (Residents of Thompson Township/Esko and five townships in southern St. Louis County receive only ambulance service.)

"We intend to levy the difference between the cost of providing service and what we get in ambulance fees," Schroeder said, "not for the entire cost of the ambulance service. The bills actually bring in most of that."

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CAFD was established on Jan. 1, 2010, by legislative action. It is the largest combination fire and EMS transport provider north of the Twin Cities and the first independent Fire/EMS District in Minnesota. In addition to the three member communities, CAFD provides structural fire protection to the Fond du Lac Reservation, which adds up to a total of 170 square miles of fire protection coverage. CAFD also provides advanced life support ambulance service to a state-mandated service area of more than 250 square miles of Carlton County and southern St. Louis County.

The CAFD budget for 2014 is proposed at $3,161,600. That includes $1,671,950 for the fire levy and $98,000 for ambulance service for the three members, plus $55,000 for the areas only served by ambulance. Some 59 percent of the budget is funded by local tax payers, while the remaining 41 percent is funded through user fees and other intergovernmental revenue.

For the three communities that receive both fire and ambulance service from CAFD, the estimated tax per $100,000 of property value is $17.70 per month, while the tax impact per $100,000 for a residence paying only for ambulance service is approximately $1 per month, according to CAFD and County Auditor calculations.

"That's 3 cents a day," Schroeder said about the ambulance-only tax, adding that the cost of both fire and ambulance for a median value home worth $120,000 is approximately 58 cents a day.

He showed a chart comparing average household costs to the cost of CAFD fire and ambulance service. The average smartphone costs $3.35 a day; basic cable (at $50 a month) costs $1.64 per day; while a $20 pizza dinner once a month costs 66 cents a day.

"It's not a huge impact to a property owner," Schroeder said, comparing the increase to the $20 he and his wife usually spend on a movie date. "But it's a huge change to how the service is funded."

Thomson Township has been paying the fire district a contracted rate that amounted to approximately half what its residents will be taxed by 2016, because the district is phasing in its ambulance tax at 50 percent the first year and 50 percent the next year.

"We went to each township [after the fire district was formed] asking for voluntary participation on their part or to consider a formal merger with CAFD," Schroeder said. "The only one that stepped up was Thomson Township."

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Last year, CAFD officials began the process of rolling out an ambulance levy to the entire area served by its ambulances. It took a trip back to the legislature, but Schroeder said he's confident the ambulance tax can survive any legal challenges (not that any have been filed to date.)

"We have always felt the original language gave us the ability to institute the tax," he added.

The legislature changed 13 words of the original bill during the past session, Schroeder said, explaining that the Attorney General's office had recommended the changes to bring it into line with similar legislation. Then, when Thomson Township objected to the legislation changes, they added a levy cap desired by the township.

"Other than the tax being new, it hasn't been real controversial," Schroeder said. "At the township government level, it's probably not a huge surprise. We've been meeting with them for years and they've known it was in our long-range plans."

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Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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