No word yet on federal funding for a new fireboat for South Whidbey

They’re still waiting to hear about a new fireboat, but the budget shortfall is under control and a new name is on the horizon, Island County Fire District 3 Chief Rusty Palmer said this week.

Three months into 2011, the district still hasn’t heard from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about a $210,000 grant for a larger, more durable fireboat, Palmer said.

He said the district is eyeing an all-weather, twin-hulled vessel 26 to 30 feet long which could be outfitted with a pump and nozzle, and which not only would be effective in rough-water rescues but also for evacuations, firefighting and other activities.

Currently, the district has only one 15-foot rubber-sided boat it uses for rescues.

The FEMA grant, part of a larger appropriation sought in conjunction with the Port of South Whidbey, would cover about three-fourths of the cost of the vessel. The fire district would cover the rest of the cost, up to $90,000, Palmer said.

“They’ve been slow to tell us, and that usually is a good thing,” the chief said of FEMA. “We really hope that we can get it.”

He said that the district is optimistic, and will meet this month with port officials to iron out berthing of the craft and related issues.

On the bright side, if the boat falls through, the savings would nearly make up all of a $111,000 shortfall in this year’s property tax revenue received by the district. The deficit was caused by a decline in property values.

The district’s 2011 budget is about $2.6 million, down from last year’s $2.9 million. Palmer said district officials anticipated the tax revenue decline, and budgeted accordingly.

“A number of projects we just put off,” Palmer said, adding that in the first quarter of 2011 the district spent only 20 percent of its budget.

“We’re doing well keeping the costs down,” he said. “It’s a needs-based budget, and fairly slim.”

He said deferred projects were those that, even though they would improve efficiency, such as some preventive maintenance and more sophisticated computer software, they aren’t essential.

“Some of those things would be nice, but we can get by fine without them,” Palmer said. “Maybe we can get to them next year.”

He said the district achieved another estimated $7,000 in savings when four salaried employees due 3-percent raises declined as a group to accept them.

“It just didn’t feel right,” administrative assistant Paula Schuler, one of those who were to receive a raise, said at the time. Others who declined raises were deputy chiefs Mike Cotton and Jon Beck and Assistant Chief Paul Busch.

Meanwhile, the district is making progress on at least one low-budget item — changing its name.

Palmer said the goal is to find a unified label for the district, which through the years has gone by a number of monikers.

He said new names were solicited from volunteers and staff, and that 54 suggestions were submitted. Almost all included the words “South Whidbey,” “Fire” and “Rescue,” he said. Others pressed for inclusion of “EMS,” noting that 80 percent of the district’s calls are medical.

Palmer said the names have been whittled down to three or four themes, and will be presented to commissioners at their next meeting.

“The idea is to find a name, use it and take away the confusion,” he said.

Speaking of seeking input, the district received an estimated 30-percent return from its latest citizen survey, distributed randomly to residents of the district and asking for comments, criticism and suggestions.

“There’s a lot of information we can take from what the citizens think,” Palmer said.

Fire District 3 covers 66 square miles and 54 miles of shoreline from south of Greenbank to Clinton. There’s a paid staff of six and about 100 volunteers staffing stations.