Confusion Regarding Highland EMS Fees
“We know there will be kinks in the system.”
That has been the mantra of the Highland County Board of Supervisors as they have readied a plan to roll out a fee to taxpayers to fund county emergency medical services. Now, one of those kinks may have come to light as the taxpayers receive their fall tax tickets. Or maybe not.
The Supervisors began this process with the creation of a draft ordinance to assess this fee, which was introduced at their July 15th work session. The basic plan was to mimic the enterprise fee which funds the county’s solid waste disposal, where each habitable dwelling and businesses are assessed a fee. The EMS billing structure was altered to exclude businesses, and houses being used as a bed and breakfast. In addition, the EMS fee was sent to absentee landowners, who were assessed one fee, no matter how many tracts of land they own.
However, the language in the ordinance, which was duly advertised and adopted after a public hearing on August 4th, and is attached with this story on our website, may not match the original intent. At best, the ordinance wording can be vague, if not confusing. County Attorney Melissa Dowd quotes from it during the work session:
“And as part of the ordinance, we state that habitable dwellings, and in the case of vacant land, no single landowner shall be assessed more than one EMS fee. And it, the intent of the ordinance is that a typical habitable dwelling shall be assessed one EMS fee – if the same landowner also owns tax-map parcels of vacant land, only one EMS fee is due from that family, or that person.”
Later in that same meeting, Ms. Dowd addresses the possibility of a new dwelling being built on a piece of property, and how that should be handled:
“It would be the responsibility of landowners to inform the Commissioner of Revenue if a vacant parcel of land has a new dwelling that’s been put on it, so that we can make sure we’re not double-assessing this fee.”
This seems to undercut the wording in the ordinance that mandates all habitable dwellings be assessed. Furthermore, as Ms. Dowd explained the projected income for this fee, she referenced the “number of households” currently being sent an enterprise fee tax ticket, 1,939. However, a habitable dwelling and a household are two different things. I spoke with Commissioner of the Revenue Yvonne Wimer, and the 1,939 refers to the number of buildings being taxed, not the number of households – one household may receive multiple fees for owning more than one habitable dwelling.
Following the July 15th work session, my interpretation of the intent of the fee was that each household would only be charged one fee, which was how I reported it, as did The Recorder. Apparently, we were not alone in this interpretation, because as taxpayers receive their fall tickets, and find they are being assessed for each habitable dwelling they own, confusion and anger have arisen.
During the Board’s October work session, Chair David Blanchard referenced hearing from taxpayers receiving multiple tickets, including himself and fellow Board member Harry Sponaugle, and once again underscored that there are kinks in the system that need to be worked out, and proposed contacting the courthouse on a one-on-one basis to address issues. However, the Commissioner of the Revenue currently has no choice but to collect based on the adopted ordinance.
County Administrator Roberta Lambert acknowledged they are receiving many questions, but do not yet have the answers. The Board will address the issue at their upcoming regular meeting on November 3rd, where they will decide if the ordinance stands as written, or will be amended.