Fire district looks at levy increase

This spring, South Whidbey Fire/EMS commissioners will be seeking input on a proposed levy lid lift.

Increased demand and inflation coupled with poor retention are stretching the district thin, according to Fire Chief Rusty Palmer.

“It’s just flat wearing them out,” he said of the volunteers.

He’s proposing a 30-cent increase on the levy, which would result in the owner of a $400,000 home paying about $10 more per month. The total levy rate would change from 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to 95 cents.

He hopes to fund eight full-time firefighter/EMT positions and pay for maintenance of a fleet of aging vehicles.

There are 18 apparatuses in the district that are overdue for replacement, which contributed to a recent downgrade in its fire insurance rating.

The shift to paid full-time would hopefully curb the loss of volunteers, many of whom leave the district to seek paid positions elsewhere, he said. It also puts less strain on volunteers if more firefighters are on duty at all times.

“In my opinion, it’s a natural evolution,” he said.

Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue has 12 full-time employee positions and seven part-time. North Whidbey Fire and Rescue has two paid full-time chief positions, a full-time firefighters/EMT/maintenance employee and 20 part-time firefighters/EMTs.

Over the decade Palmer has been with the district, it has recruited 167 volunteers but lost 184, he said. The number of volunteers has maintained at about 55.

“That wouldn’t be so bad if our call volume wasn’t going up so much,” he said.

The district currently has eight part-time firefighters, a chief and three full-time deputy chief positions. There is also a records manager, financial officer and administrative specialist, as well as two full-time maintenance technicians.

The district serves 15,600 people across more than 66 square miles, according to a press release. It responds to an average of 2,700 calls a year, nearly 80 percent of which are medical related.

Fire commissioners haven’t yet decided if the levy lid lift will go on next year’s ballot and will use a series of public meetings to gather information about the public’s willingness as well as to explore other funding options, Palmer said.