The cost of an ambulance trip to a local hospital will increase next year. In order to maintain current services, Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz last week offered a proposed 2015-16 budget (which begins July 1) to the district’s Finance Committee that would raise the cost of a trip to $1,405 from the current level of $1,135 — a nearly 24% increase. The Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission approved the rate increase Tuesday, May 26.

This and other medical-service cost increases are necessary to continue current service levels as a consequence of losing the ambulance service contract with Riverside County for transporting residents of Pine Cove and Zone 3 (north and south of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District).

Without the rate increases, Reitz’s revenue estimate is $1.6 million compared to the current year (which ends June 30) of $1.85 million. The quarter-of-a-million-dollar difference would primarily affect staffing, according to Reitz. If the rate increase were approved, Reitz projected revenues of about $1.7 million.

Two engineer positions and one firefighter position would not be filled on a permanent basis. Limited-term firefighters, such as reserves, would serve in the jobs, according to Reitz. Also, the weekly hours for the administrative assistant would be reduced from 24 to 16. These actions would save about $86,000, according to two budget submissions.

With possible limitations on budget resources, Reitz stated that the issue is “ … do we need a two-, three- or four-person staff and how many ambulances for our district?” Currently, with the benefit of the county ambulance contract, Idyllwild normally has staff to support two concurrent ambulance calls; however, the lower revenue estimate might necessitate that the district can only staff one ambulance call, Reitz lamented, and added that his preference is to always have staff available for two ambulances.

The district currently has two to three dispatch calls daily, he noted.

The rate increase will enable IFPD to fill several positions on a permanent basis rather than relying on reserves, according to Reitz.

“We’re making up for past inactions [to raise revenue], to ensure fire and emergency service is in line with our residents’ expectations,” he stated.

IFPD will lose about $180,000 in revenue from the contracts with Riverside County, but expects revenue from ambulance fees to continue at the 2014-15 level although total transports will decline due to shift of responsibility in Pine Cove and beyond to the county’s ambulance provider — American Medical Response.

The county has already approved a $1,415 transport rate for AMR and IFPD will propose a rate of $1,405 for advanced life service. Also, IFPD’s mileage rate will increase 18 percent, from $28.15 to $33.30 per mile. Reitz pointed to AMR’s mileage rate of $34.42.

The proposed budget still includes one dilemma. The county’s new ambulance policies will require standardization of equipment and installation of communication device to local, first-responder vehicles in case of any emergency.

The cost of this equipment for IFPD is estimated to be about $100,000 to outfit all nine vehicles, but the budget does not include this cost, Reitz said. However, he is still negotiating with the county about what it will expect or, possibly, require from IFPD.

Since these devices have not performed well in the mountains, he is hopeful he can convince the county to allow IFPD to use less sophisticated equipment that will still achieve a similar purpose.

Reitz stressed that these increases are for the costs associated with an ambulance call or transport. When residents ask about the property tax and parcel fee, he stresses that those revenues “ … guarantee the ambulance service is available, they are not for the actual service.”

Idyllwild residents do not want a third service or outside provider, Reitz said. Ambulance service is about 85 percent of the district’s workload and those taxes ensure IFPD can provide fire and emergency medical service when called.

“We used to be a fire department that provided EMS [emergency medical services], now we’re an EMS department that provides fire,” he added.

Several reasons explain and may alleviate the present $270,000 deficit in the current-year budget. Finance Chair and Commissioner Nancy Layton said IFPD will receive the final $380,000 of property tax and parcel fee revenue this month and the final $45,000 payment for the county ambulance contract; ambulance revenue for the 10 months of the year has already equaled the full-year projection; and a loan agreement for the purchase of the two ambulances in February would remove the cost from the budget.

Besides the ambulance costs, a finance subcommittee also will consider including other purchases, such as water tenders and projects such as repaving the concrete on both sides of the station.

Legal fees have reached $90,000, nearly twice the mid-year estimate. These are largely associated with the litigation stemming from the chief’s dismissal of former Capt. James Reyes. For next year, Reitz projects that legal costs will be about $37,000.