Island County Fire District 3 officials are rethinking their long-considered plan for a new headquarters and training facility at Bayview.
“It’s not that we don’t like the design,” District Commission Chairman Mike Helland said this week. “We just think we can do better for the taxpayer.”
The project, on the drawing board for 10 years, culminated two years ago in a design for a 10,000-square-foot, two-bay fire station, a 5,400-square-foot administration building and a 400-square-foot training facility.
The project is planned for an L-shaped 9.4 acres owned by the district between Good Cheer Food Bank and Bayview School.
The design was presented by Carletti Architects of Mount Vernon, and the most recent cost estimate was a little more than $4 million.
But since then, the economy has foundered, and falling property values have left the district with $111,000 less in tax revenue than it expected.
Meanwhile, an anti-government, anti-tax sentiment has taken hold among the voters, so approval of an additional tax levy for the project seems unlikely anytime soon.
Since Chief Rusty Palmer took over the department early this past year, the district has concentrated on tightening its belt.
“Things have changed since we started this years ago,” Palmer said of the Bayview project. “We just need to start from square one to understand what’s truly needed there.”
Palmer told commissioners at their regular monthly meeting this past week that the architects should be back with some modified proposals early next month.
“I think it should be scaled differently,” Palmer said. “I’m not sure it’s the proper design for what our needs are. The needs are different today then they were.”
At the same time, he said, the district must be certain that what it decides to build will be serviceable long into the future.
“We’ll only get one chance to build it,” Palmer said. “We have to be sure we haven’t outgrown it on the day we move in.”
“For example, I’ve never seen a fire station built with enough storage,” he added.
Palmer said that while scaling back the project probably is advisable, a training facility definitely should remain in the plan.
He said centralized training not only would save time and money on fuel, but would keep vehicles, equipment and personnel in the district, while providing up-to-date training to keep firefighters sharp.
“That’s a critical piece,” Palmer said. “We need to practice our skills to stay response-ready.”
District Commissioner Kenon Simmons said no new timeline has been established for a revised Bayview headquarters. He said it may be a year or two before a new design is established and the project begins to move forward again.
“I believe we need a new Bayview station,” Simmons said. “We just need to get our ducks in a row.”
The district has received some permits for the project, but for the time being will proceed no further in the permit process, Helland said.
The district has five paid employees and about a 100 volunteers, and the Bayview facility was designed with volunteers in mind.
“What happens if down the road we don’t have a volunteer force?” Helland said. “The needs we have today may not be the needs we have tomorrow.”
Palmer said the revised architect drawings for the facility will be presented to the commission next month, then will be put before department members and the public for additional comment.
The district’s current tax levy is 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, among the lowest of fire districts of similar size in the state.
By law the district, with voter approval, could raise that to $1.50 per $1,000, but officials are wary of asking for any increase.
The district extends from south of Greenbank to the southern tip of Whidbey Island, and serves about 16,000 South End residents. This year’s budget is about $2.4 million.
Simmons predicted that the commissioners will continue to move deliberately on the Bayview project.
“I’m a taxpayer, too,” he said. “I want to be sensitive to the needs of the community.”