Fire commissioners place levy lid lift on ballot

Commissioners for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue are hoping this will be the year that voters in the district approve an increase in the district’s property tax levy.

Tuesday night, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to place the 15-cent levy lid lift request on the November ballot. Nobody from the public commented and the commissioners adopted the measure without comment.

Fire Chief John Clark said it was disappointing not to hear from anyone after the meeting was widely advertised. The department is putting together a citizens advisory committee of about six to eight people in order to get input from residents, and a few more members are still needed.

Information about volunteering for the committee is on the district’s website.

With a history of failing to pass levy lid lifts, the district has the lowest levy rate of fire districts on the island at 62 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The district collects about $1.7 million a year in property taxes. In comparison, South Whidbey Fire/EMS collects about $3 million a year, although the area and number of people served are different.

North Whidbey Fire’s proposed 15-cent levy lid increase would cost the owner of a $370,000 house — the district’s average — an extra $55.50 a year in property taxes.

North Whidbey voters turned down proposed increases to the fire department in 2017 and twice in 2008. This time, however, the proposed increase is smaller and the district is being very specific about what the increases in property taxes would fund, Clark said.

Under the proposal, the extra funding would be used to replace two aging fire engines, the emergency radios and self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters.

The equipment isn’t cheap. The fire engines cost about $500,000 each, Clark said. A bottle for the self-contained breathing apparatus costs about $1,000 and the pack they sit on is about $4,5000.

The district’s emergency radios are out-of-date and don’t always work right.

“We probably have failing radios on a monthly basis,” the chief said.

Fire officials plan on paying cash for the replacement equipment instead of financing the purchases. The fire district is debt free.

“North Whidbey Fire and Rescue runs a tight ship,” Clark said in a press release. “We have a ‘pay as you go’ philosophy, which means just asking for what is needed at the time.”

In addition to helping to keep firefighters safe, the chief explained that the new equipment will help ensure that the district’s fire rating doesn’t decline, which would translate to higher fire insurance premiums for residents.

The fire department’s expenses increase by about 3 to 5 percent a year, Clark said, while the levy can only be increased by 1 percent a year.

Property tax is the district’s largest source of revenue, but the department also receives more than $500,000 a year from WhidbeyHealth for responding to medical calls and providing basic life support.

Clark explained that firefighters respond to a lot more than just fires — everything from flooded houses to hazardous material spills to cats in trees. About 63 percent of calls are medical-related. The district has “robust” marine rescue and high-angle rescues programs, he said.

The district has six full-time staff, 23 part-time employees and 61 volunteers, although that number fluctuates.

The district consists of the unincorporated area of the island north of Libbey Road. About 18,000 people live in the 55 square miles.

The district responds to an average of about 2,400 calls a year, which is up 45 percent in 10 years.

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