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,” Bill Burwell, a newly elected member of a 5-member board to oversee the district, said Tuesday. “That just means a great deal for us and ensures the protection for Milton-Freewater.”

A total 1,483 votes were cast in favor, a higher percentage of registered voters than 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. 

The district counts a total of 4,580 registered voters. Tuesday’s countywide voter turnout was 39.43 percent. A Pilot Rock tax levy was the only other ballot measure.

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.”

Burwell and Howard join three 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.

Miller, 45, is a code enforcement officer and flash zoning assistant for the county.

“Initially I was absolutely ecstatic to witness the overwhelming support for this measure,”?Miller said Wednesday. “The 86 percent approval rate gave me the message, the mission we’re trying to accomplish is what they people want and need.”

Lyon was out of town Tuesday.

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.

Voters heard

Paul Seaquist of Century 21 Seaquist Real Estate, Milton-Freewater, worked for the tax-levy campaign, mailing fliers and posting signs around town. 

“Milton-Freewater is making sure their community stays a viable community,” he said. “They stepped up very admirably to the cause.”

The measure imposes a 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.

“Voters have been heard,”?Cathy Mebes, spokeswoman for Milton-Freewater EMS, said in an email Wednesday. “They clearly saw a substantial value in having local ambulance service respond to their emergencies.”

Mebes said residents did not want to depend on a neighboring emergency medical service. She said the vote endorses the service Milton-Freewater EMS has provided the past 16 years.

Saager was out of town this week.

The new board must decide how to provide for emergency medical service in the new district, which encompasses the same boundaries as the Milton-Freewater School District. Tax dollars will not be available to the district until fall 2012, but the board may be able to borrow money until then.

Imminent need

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

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

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

Howard and Miller said they look 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,”?Howard said.

Miller said the board should meet immediately. “The need is imminent. We’ve been tasked by the people. We need to stand up and be responsible.”

King said he looks forward to working with the county to start the new 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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