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County officials see budget cuts if I-747 passes

This chart shows the estimated losses to taxing districts in Island County if Initiative 747 is approved by voters Nov. 6. The darker line is the projected revenue difference in 2002, and the second line is the projected total loss over six years. -
This chart shows the estimated losses to taxing districts in Island County if Initiative 747 is approved by voters Nov. 6. The darker line is the projected revenue difference in 2002, and the second line is the projected total loss over six years.
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Concern, not panic, appears to be the attitude of Island County’s elected officials and public servants as they brace for funding cuts that would come with the passage of Initiative 747 in next Tuesday’s election.

Ready to take the hardest hit from an estimated $590,000 in revenue losses promised by the ballot measure in 2002 are the county’s emergency medical service and fire districts. Over six years, all public county agencies could lose a combined $4.5 million.

“It presents problems,” said Roger Meyers, Island County’s Emergency Medical Services manager, last week. “Obviously, we would have to tighten our belts in areas.”

The initiative was proposed by Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman, who also authored I-695 and I-722. I-747, which proposes to freeze the annual rate of property tax increases at 1 percent, would take a considerable chomp out of property tax funding to county taxing districts. According to a recent report released by the state Department of Revenue, the adoption of I-747 would cost Island County EMS and its paramedic program $67,000 in funding next year and $488,000 over the next six years. Fire districts would lose $219,000 in 2002 and over $1.6 million by 2007.

What those cuts will mean in terms of public service is something Meyers and others have yet to determine.

“I think we have to wait and see,” he said. “The short answer is, ‘Yes, it’s going to have an impact.’ To what degree, we don’t exactly know.”

Any potential cutbacks in emergency services, he said, would likely take place at the administrative level or in the realm of long-term capital investments. Some savings could come simply by making EMS ambulances last longer, Meyers said.

“We don’t foresee any decreased service to the public,” he said. “That’s where we’ve got to put the focus of the capital that we have.”

After sitting through a briefing about the initiative last Tuesday with a Washington Association of Counties official, Island County Commissioner Bill Thorn said Island County cannot afford to lose service from its fire districts or its law enforcement agencies, especially when September’s terrorist attacks are taken into account.

“These are our first responders,” Thorn said Thursday.

At one point during Tuesday’s session, Thorn’s colleague, Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, said that until recently the county’s emergency services department had “always been the red-headed stepchild of Island County.” But now that “we’re into a bio-terrorism time,” he said, the department could prove critical were anything momentous to occur on Whidbey or Camano islands.

Shelton said if the county loses revenue to I-747, it might be necessary to make personnel cuts. Where else the cuts would come, he could not say.

“I have not a clue where there are going to be cuts.”

On South Whidbey, Langley Mayor Lloyd Furman said his city’s concern over the initiative is long term. Starting out, the measure makes only a small dent in the city’s finances.

“It’s pennies for us,” he said.

His city wrote its draft 2002 budget as if I-747 had already passed. Using some creative solutions, the budget will fund the city’s operations next year. But as expenses such as employee medical insurance, liability insurance, and the cost of electricity rise in the coming years, Langley will start falling behind in terms of revenue.

“How do you make up for all those increases in costs?” he said.

One “fortunate” coincidence in the dilemma over I-747 — at least for the county’s EMS service — is that Island County EMS had already planned to go to the public with a levy next year as part of its regular funding cycle. Scott Rhine, Whidbey General Hospital’s administrator, said such levies are a traditional form of funding for emergency services on Whidbey Island. It is a choice he wants to leave to the voters.

“There’s a responsibility we feel … to present our case,” Rhine said.

Rhine said it is possible I-747 could influence what EMS asks for in the next levy. He also pointed out Whidbey General has other sources of revenue that can absorb the impact of some funding cuts.

The complete text of I-747 can be found in the state voters pamphlet sent out to households earlier this month. It is also available on the Internet at www.secstate.wa.gov.

(Record Associate Editor Matt Johnson contributed to this story.)

Community Events, April 2014

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