Cost of new ambulances stirs debate

County budget leaves tax rate unchanged
May. 22, 2014 @ 09:01 AM

Caldwell County is not proposing a tax increase, but there may be an increase in water rates.

But a proposal to borrowing approximately $1.4 million to buy 10 new patrol cars and five new ambulances was the part of the proposed budget for fiscal 2014-15 that got the most discussion among the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners when it was presented Monday night.

Each new ambulance would cost about $200,000, and Commissioner Clay Bollinger wondered whether it would be more cost-efficient to refurbish some of the current ambulances.

Finance Officer Tony Helton said that the warranties on new ambulances save enough on maintenance costs to offset the interest the county would pay on a loan to buy new ambulances. He cited the county's experience in recent years with maintenance -- until this year, the county had not bought a new ambulance since 2008.

In fiscal year 2009-10, ambulance maintenance costs were $76,389, for fiscal 2012-13 they grew to $128,715, and in the current year they are projected to total at least $140,000.

“When warranties drop off, the costs shoot up,” Helton said.

Commissioner Chris Barlowe said he would rather pay interest on borrowed money than pay to repair an ambulance having continual maintenance problems.

Bollinger remained hesitant. “I still think we ought to look at some other approaches before we go on and order five,” he said.

The commissioners asked the county staff to look into refurbishing as well as other options for the current fleet before a final decision is made.

The proposed budget would leave the property tax rate unchanged at 60 cents for every $100 of value. A 2-percent water rate increase would help the county handle rising water costs, which have continued to increase for the county in recent years, Helton said.

Total spending would go up by more than $5.2 million to just under $73.6 million. By far the largest increase, $817,000, is for housing inmates. The increase is being driven by the high number of inmates that Caldwell has had to house in jails in other counties. Last year, the county budgeted only about $50,000 for it.

But there has been a steep rise in the number of people being booked into jail -- from about 56,000 in 2012 to about 73,000 in 2013, and 2014 is on pace to exceed 90,000, Helton said.

The budget also would give county employees a 2 percent cost-of-living pay raise, which would cost the county a total of about $300,000, and would create a new county planner position.

The county's funding for public schools would increase by $50,000, to a total of $14,550,000, and its community college funding would go up by $20,000 to $3,381,073.