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Levy lift approval floods South End fire district with work

Charlie Bieber and Clinton station Lieutenant Gary Guernsey demonstrate the fire engine’s capabilities. The rig is one of South Whidbey Fire/EMS’s newest, but is part of a fleet with seven vehicles in need of repairs or replacing.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Charlie Bieber and Clinton station Lieutenant Gary Guernsey demonstrate the fire engine’s capabilities. The rig is one of South Whidbey Fire/EMS’s newest, but is part of a fleet with seven vehicles in need of repairs or replacing.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

South Whidbey Fire/EMS will have its money.

Thanks to almost 60-percent voter approval of the district’s levy lift Tuesday, the South End’s firefighters and EMTs avoided service and staff cuts.

“We greatly appreciate the support the community has given us,” said Fire Chief Rusty Palmer.

“Residents are going to see the continued response,” he added. “We won’t have to cut back our level of service. Had we not gotten it, we would have been in some dire straits.”

As of Thursday, the levy lift was approved by 5,785 voters (about 59 percent). The lift needed a simple majority for approval, which will increase the levy from 61 cent per $1,000 of assessed valuation to 76 cents. Depending on property values, which will soon be determined by Island County, South Whidbey Fire/EMS’ $2.2 million budget will increase by about $500,000.

“We’re going to be really conservative with the money this year to not get to this point again … so we don’t have to come back to the citizens for a long, long time,” Palmer said.

“It’s a lot of money, we understand that,” he added. “We’re going to take our time to make sure we’re frugal with it.”

Fire commissioners and Palmer may take their time, but they already know how the money will be spent. A $200,000 revenue decrease over the past few years forced Palmer to delay a long list of maintenance issues for facilities and engines.

Seven district-owned vehicles including general work trucks and fire engines need to be replaced. New fire engines range from $120,000 to $1.5 million, depending on its abilities. Last year, the district retired one of its oldest engines after 24 years in service. Some of the district’s engines have served long past their projected work life of about 15 years.

“As I look out 20 years from now, we’ve got millions of dollars of capital funds to replace during that time,” Palmer said.

Money became more scarce this year when the district learned its Maxwelton and Bayview stations required asbestos abatement. Bringing the stations up to code will cost about $63,000, but the district had only budgeted $36,000 for general maintenance issues at the stations. Increased insulation in the ceilings, energy-efficient lighting and replacing furnaces with heat pumps will be added to the abatement project, which will be delayed until December.

“It really sucked down the funding we needed,” Palmer said.

Opponents of the levy lift urged the district to consider new financial policies. South Whidbey Fire/EMS has been a debt-free agency for some 20 years, largely because of a commissioners’ policy. It’s a rule the current commissioners, Chairman Kenon Simmons, Mike Helland and Bob Elliott, continue to support. But, the possibility of changing that rule exists, however unlikely, to help steady the district’s expenses.

“It’s worth looking at and considering,” Palmer said. “It would take a significant change in the policy of the board for us to get there.”

Instead of paying interest on capital purchases, such as new facilities, engines or vehicles, South Whidbey Fire/EMS relied on its capital reserves. By policy, the fire district has moved 25 percent of its revenue into the reserve fund to pay for major projects. At least that was until this year when commissioners were asked by Palmer to decrease the savings to 20 percent. Commissioners defended the practice because they did not want to be surprised by a suddenly malfunctioning engine and not have the money to replace it.

Palmer and the commissioners plan to use levy funds to change the district’s firefighter training. Rather than send a few recruits to an academy, South Whidbey Fire/EMS will bring instructors to Whidbey Island for bulk training.

“The board really has some tough work ahead of it,” Palmer said.

The district’s budget will be amended to include the levy approval. Palmer will present it to the board Thursday, Nov. 15 for public hearing before it has to be submitted to Island County on Nov. 30.

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