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Auditors give South Whidbey Fire/EMS clean report

South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer was pleased with the state auditor
South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer was pleased with the state auditor's office report that had no findings.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / Record file

South Whidbey Fire/EMS received a clean audit, which came at an opportune time as the fire district starts talking about a property tax levy increase.

The State Auditor’s Office reported no violations or findings from its inspection of the 2009-2010 budget years.

The report was welcome news to the district’s chief, who was hired in 2010 in the midst of a couple of changes that came as a result of the previous 2006-2008 audit.

“It’s a matter of public confidence,” said Fire Chief Rusty Palmer.

“As a taxpayer, if I’m going to vote on a levy, and I’m thinking of voting in the affirmative, I want to know that the government agency I’m voting for is handling its budget right,” he said.

The report was released at a convenient time for the fire district, which will seek a levy increase of 15 cents. Fire commissioners are expected to vote on the levy increase resolution at their next meeting March 15.

Questions were raised at its last meeting about the district’s finances, and Palmer told the commissioners 15 cents would mean stability for the district’s budget. The tax-funded emergency services area has lost about $200,000 in the past few years as property values on South Whidbey declined.

And although the fire district cut its spending and improved efficiency, the revenue and expense values are drawing nearer to each other. Palmer has said the district’s expenses will exceed its revenue by 2013, or by 2014 at the latest.

Officials hope the clean audit will improve voters’ opinions of South Whidbey Fire/EMS, formerly known as Island County Fire District 3.

“It lends credibility that we’re being responsible with the resources we’re given,” said Fire Commissioner Kenon Simmons.

The levy in 2009 and 2010 was 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The fire district had a total regular levy of $2.2 million during that two-year period. Leaders within the district are proud that the auditor’s office had nothing to report in their financial review and overall accountability.

“It’s very important that the public knows we’re using the funds they give us well,” Palmer said.

“We think we’re doing the right thing, and (the audit) is another set of eyes that looks at us not only from a financial perspective, but a legal perspective.”

In its previous audit for 2006-2008, the fire district was told of two violations. During the audit period, the fire district was found to have violated conflict of interest and state bid laws. The fire district awarded computer, consulting and electrical services work to one of its volunteer firefighters without going through a proper bid process.

Since then, a small works roster, bid process and contract policy were implemented. Work projects for the district’s facilities are now routed through the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington so bids can be submitted to the district in accordance with state laws.

“We immediately corrected that,” said Simmons, who was voted to the board in 2010. “Both of them were in the process of being corrected when the audit came out two years ago. They were categorized as minor.”

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