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South Whidbey fire levy comes under public fire

Fire Commissioner Mike Helland talks about the proposed 15-cent levy increase for South Whidbey Fire/EMS operations.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Fire Commissioner Mike Helland talks about the proposed 15-cent levy increase for South Whidbey Fire/EMS operations.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

FREELAND — Consolidated stations, joined services and a reduced response staff were all offered by South End residents as alternatives to a proposed 15-cent levy increase for South Whidbey Fire/EMS.

A few South Whidbey residents opposed the tax increase proposed by Fire Chief Rusty Palmer during the fire commissioners meeting Thursday night. A couple of citizens supported the measure that would keep the South End’s fire and emergency responses at its current levels.

“I used to be in the corporate world, and we had a term for what we’re doing here, and it’s ‘feeding the beast,’” said Bob Walters, a Langley resident. “The reality is it’s beyond both the immediate and the future capability of the citizens to pay for. And that’s not going to change. The demographics are going the wrong way.”

Walters said the South End’s older population is increasing. He suggested the fire district focus on emergency medical services more and fire response less.

He cited a National Fire Protection Association figure that he said showed most districts that serve a similarly sized population have fewer fire engines and stations.

“Only 10 percent … have anywhere near as many fire engines or fire stations as we do,” Walters said.

“I’m just suggesting to you we ought to be doing other things before we entertain a levy here.”

The fire commissioners defended the use of six stations and more than a dozen engines and water tenders. Commissioner Bob Elliot cited a regulation that requires a fire district to respond to a fire within three minutes. The spacing of South Whidbey’s fire stations in Clinton, Maxwelton, Langley, Bayview, Saratoga and Freeland is necessary to cover the 66 square miles it protects, from Classic Road south to Possession Point.

“We have to space our stations to protect property,” Elliot said.

South Whidbey’s fire commissioners held their first public comment meeting for the levy increase. Palmer proposed the 15 cent addition at the previous meeting in February. The increase would push the tax to 76 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. A $200,000 property would pay $152 each year. The increased revenue would be split between operations, fuel costs, equipment, apparatus (vehicle), facilities, training and disaster preparedness. Facilities repair and maintenance was positioned to receive $125,000 of the possible $557,993 that would be brought in by the tax increase.

The overall cost of operating a fire district that serves about 20,000 residents drew Walters’ criticism.

“We’ve got to look at consolidation with the Central Whidbey fire department,” he said. “It’s crazy we have two fire districts serving 30,000 people.”

Commissioner Kenon Simmons said the board had not yet voted to approve seeking the tax increase. However, Simmons said it will be up to the voters to decide how the fire district should move forward, either with the additional revenue or by making reductions in its service.

“I do think it’s extremely prudent to put the needs before the community and allow them to make the choice,” Simmons said. “It’s like my wife said, ‘You can’t start cutting stuff without asking first.’”

Revenue for South Whidbey’s fire protection district has decreased by about $220,000 in the past two years as property values dropped. Palmer has projected that by 2014, the district’s expenses will be greater than its revenues, possibly putting South Whidbey Fire/EMS in debt.

“We’ve cut a number of programs, we’ve cut a number of purchases to come under the budget,” Palmer said. “In 2014, that’s where we kind of go flatline.”

One levy increase supporter said he wants to ensure South Whidbey firefighters and emergency medical technicians can arrive in time to prevent human hearts from flatlining. Don Mason, a Freeland resident, said he knew what the district had already given up in its staffing and operations.

“I speak in support of the levy lid lift, because I have to roll up the ramp and look you in the eye 14 minutes later,” Mason said. “I speak in support of this levy lid lift because I know how frugal we already are.”

Palmer said his goal is to have the fire commissioners decide the district’s next step by June. South Whidbey fire commissioners said they will have several more meetings for the public to comment and ask questions about the levy increase before they vote on adding the tax increase request to the November ballot.

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