The Salt Lake County Commission faces a life-and-death question: How can it expand paramedic services while it is under pressure to hold down taxes?

County Fire Chief Larry Hinman recently made a daring suggestion: Turn over paramedic services to a private company.That way, property taxes would no longer be used to pay for paramedics - so tax limits wouldn't hinder expanding the service.

Instead, a private paramedic company would charge patients or their insurance companies for treatment provided. An annual "subscription" allowing unlimited service might also be offered. That, of course, may not actually save residents any money in the long run.

But conversion to a private company may still be worthwhile if: (1) Expansion of paramedic services is necessary; (2) Tax limits on the county general fund likely would not allow it otherwise; and (3) Officials can ensure that resulting paramedic service would be professional, responsive and efficient.

The County Commission should keep the proposal alive long enough to answer those questions.

The county, which provides paramedics to all areas except Salt Lake City, has areas that are growing rapidly and therefore likely will need expanded services. County studies could verify whether that is true.

The county should then decide whether increased revenues coming from such growth could fund the expansion, or whether tax limits would prevent it. The county has constantly been at or near its general fund ceiling for years.

Next, the county should study areas where private paramedics have succeeded - such as Oklahoma City, Okla., and Fort Worth, Texas - and where they have failed, such as Kansas City, Kan.

The county should also keep in mind some lessons learned when it disbanded the ambulance service provided by its fire department a decade ago.

The main problem then came because county ambulances were originally replaced with ambulances dispatched from one centralized Salt Lake City location. That meant ambulance service to suburban locations was slow. The county could not afford such a problem with paramedic service.

In short, it's fine for the county to explore daring new ways to hold down taxes and expand service. But when it comes to paramedics and the lives they may save, the county cannot afford any mistakes.