Fire district considers 15-cent levy increase

Fire Commissioner Kenon Simmons: “We can’t keep leading like that, or we’ll pay the price for it.”  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Fire Commissioner Kenon Simmons: “We can’t keep leading like that, or we’ll pay the price for it.”
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

FREELAND — South Whidbey Fire/EMS commissioners will soon consider a 15-cent increase to its maintenance-and-operations property tax levy.

At a special commissioners meeting Thursday night, Fire Chief Rusty Palmer asked commissioners to review seeking the levy bump, and Liz Loomis, the fire district’s public affairs consultant, proposed putting the measure on the November ballot.

Officials said the levy increase is needed to offset declining revenues from a drop in property values on South Whidbey. The fire district’s chairman likened the tax-funded budget to a family owning cars.

“You can put off changing oil in the car for a while, you can even put off a new car for a little while,” said Commissioner Kenon Simmons. “The problem is down the road, all of a sudden, you’re replacing your car and your wife’s car. And you can’t take that in one year.”

“We’ve kind of been doing that in the last year or two’s budget,” he said. “We were putting off some things that weren’t critical, but they’re important. We can’t keep leading like that, or we’ll pay the price for it.”

For at least two years, the district has seen its revenue and expenses draw closer to one another.

Palmer estimated the fire district collected $200,000 less from property taxes the past two years, while operations-and-maintenance costs increased with gasoline and energy prices.

The district can increase its operations-and-maintenance budget by 1 percent each year, but officials said that isn’t enough to cover increases in its expenses.

“We’re still losing money on a regular basis,” Palmer said.

If the levy is approved, the owner of a $250,000 home on South Whidbey would pay $190 dollars in taxes to the fire district.

The current levy is 61 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. Should the levy increase be approved by the commissioners, voters would be asked to raise the levy to 76 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

One resident was concerned about the district seeking additional money while it had spent more than $2 million for facilities during the past 10 years.

Dean Enell, a Langley resident, questioned commissioners about the feasibility of asking for money when it seemed like they had plans to spend it on lavish buildings.

“I see an awful lot of money spent on some very nice stations,” Enell said. “I would request that whatever money you have set aside for capital is spent on operations.”

But commissioners said the facilities are vital to the success of the district’s volunteer responder program.

With a fluctuating volunteer base between 50 and 90 firefighters and emergency medical technicians, they said, it’s important to have up-to-date equipment and buildings.

“We’ve been able to maintain a robust volunteer service because we have facilities they’re proud of,” said Commissioner Mike Helland. “It’s a small price to pay.”

Enell also said he was worried about the district’s plans to build a new station and training facility at the district’s Bayview property.

Early plans had an estimate for a $5 million new building, which Enell didn’t think could be justified when the fire district was questioning how it should seek additional funds. The fire chief agreed.

“Mr. Enell, your comments about the Bayview station are heard; $5 million for a new station is not going to work,” Palmer said. “It’s not the right time.”

South Whidbey Fire/EMS, formerly Island County Fire District 3, has a long-standing policy to reserve 25 percent of its revenue for its capital funds. Saving money like that, commissioners said, allows them to pay for fire trucks outright rather than seeking levies. Officials also recalled a $50,000 discount the district received by purchasing two trucks in one order.

The commissioners will meet again March 15, and commissioners urged  the public to attend and voice their questions or concerns about the district’s affairs.

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