Milton-Freewater ambulance district passes in landslide

<p>A large sign encourgaing voters to pass a tax levy to support the ambulance service in Milton-Freewater sits at the intersection where Highway 11 turns north from Main Street.</p>

The Milton-Freewater community on Tuesday decided its emergency medical service is worth paying for.

An overwhelming majority of voters, 86.78 percent, approved a higher property tax to fund a new ambulance district, according to ballots counted by Umatilla County.

“I am really pleased that the community stepped forward and voted that high a percentage,” said Bill Burwell, a newly elected member of a board to oversee the district. “That just means a great deal for us and ensures the protection for Milton-Freewater.”

A total 1,483 votes were cast, a higher percentage of registered voters than those that cast ballots to approve tax funding of repairs to the Walla Walla River levee last year. That vote was considered exceptional for the northern Umatilla County community.

Bill Howard, another new board member, said he worried whether the tax would pass on the first try.

“With 86 percent I think the message must have gotten out pretty well,”?Howard said Tuesday. “I was very nervous. I really thought we might have problems getting it done. This is very good news for the community and a very positive indication local people are willing to step up and solve local problems.”

The measure imposes another 25 cent tax per $1,000 assessed value of a property. It’s expected to raise $130,000 a year for the district.

Milton-Freewater Emergency Medical Service, a private company owned by Rick Saager, is providing service at least until the end of the year.

The new board will decide how to contract for emergency medical service in the new district, which embraces the same boundaries as the Milton-Freewater School District.

Burwell joins four other top vote-getters to serve on the board.

Orrin Lyon, 74, a Milton-Freewater city councilman, received 15.89 percent of the total, the highest number of votes. He was followed by Gina Miller at 14.90 percent and Burwell at 14.28 percent.

Each was elected to a four-year term.

Miller, 45, is a code enforcement officer and flash zoning assistant for the county. Lyon was out of town Tuesday and the East Oregonian was unable to reach Miller.

Burwell, 60, is manager of ag operations at ConAgra/Lamb Weston Foods. He also formerly volunteered as a medic with the Milton-Freewater Rural Fire Department.

The next two-vote getters were Jack King with 12.26 percent and Bill Howard with 11.75 percent.

King, 73, is a rancher who lives outside Milton-Freewater, and Howard, 62, is assistant emergency manager for the county. They were elected to two-year terms, allowing for staggered terms in the future.

The other three candidates, Robert White, Shane Garner and Mark Gomes, each received between 9.63 and 10.60 percent of the vote.

As a candidate, Burwell said he did not sweat the election much because he felt all the candidates were well suited to run the ambulance district.

“Everyone that ran for the board was very qualified to sit on the board,”?he said.

Howard said he looks forward to meeting with the new board and getting things started as soon as possible.

“The next step will be to take the first step,”?he said.

Tax dollars will not be available to the district until fall 2012, but the board may be able to borrow money until then.

King said he looks forward to working with the county to start the new special district. But mostly, he said, he’s happy to see emergency service has a secure future in Milton-Freewater.

“I couldn’t imagine us being without an ambulance in our neck of the woods,” he said. “Mainly, I’m glad that it passed.”

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