Fire District 3 looks at possible levy lid lift

FREELAND — The crossroad is coming, and Island County Fire District 3 officials know it.

Revenues are not matching expenses, despite several years of cutbacks and efficiency moves. The deficit may be too great by 2014, and Fire Chief Rusty Palmer has been talking with fire commissioners about a levy lid lift that would raise property taxes to bring more money into the district.

“We’re kind of on a collision course between our revenues and our expenses,” Palmer said.

“If we get to 2014, we’re in trouble. The good news is it’s predictable,” he said.

As property values have decreased on South Whidbey, so have the fire district’s tax revenues. Officials estimated the district lost almost $200,000 in revenue the past couple of years.

“We too are on a fixed income, like many of the people we protect,” Palmer said.  “The dilemma for us is we don’t have a lot of options, other than the lid lift to go back to the citizenry and ask for more money, to raise revenue.”

At the fire district’s commissioners meeting last week, Palmer and the commissioners said they would start researching a levy increase.

The last lid lift by the fire district was in 1997.

“Quite frankly, it’s something that’s long overdue,” said Commissioner Kenon Simmons.

“It’s really something where, because of our declining revenues ... the cost of doing business continues to rise, so we find ourselves losing money.”

Raising taxes is unpopular among voters, and Simmons and Palmer know that. Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington reports that voters approved five levy lifts for fire safety or emergency medical services last year, though two of three levies that lumped public safety in with other civil services went down to defeat.

And recently on Whidbey Island, proposals to raise property taxes to pay for improved schools and a major renovation project at Whidbey General Hospital were also defeated.

With the economy still slow to recover, fire district leaders know they have work ahead of them to convince voters to potentially approve a lid lift.

“We need to do some research, find out exactly what that number is,” Palmer said. “Is it five cents, 10 cents, 25 cents? We don’t have that information yet.”

Without the increase in revenue, however, fire officials are wary of what’s to come.

“In the near future we’re simply not going to be able to provide the necessary services,” Simmons said.

Fire commissioners expect to get an update on a possible levy increase by their meeting on Nov. 10.

Palmer said he wants to know if the district should pursue the 2012 election as soon as possible, so he can begin to explain the needs more clearly to the voters.

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