Fire plan calls for levy lid lift

South Whidbey Fire/EMS recently approved a five-year strategic plan that calls for a levy lid lift.

The fire department is considering asking voters to increase the levy from 65 cents to 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to hire additional staff, keep up with increasing call volumes and replace aging apparatus, according to a press release. That would be a total of $285 a year for the owner of a $300,000 home.

The first time the department asked for a levy increase was in 2012. The request was for 15-cent hike from 61 to 76 cents as a result of the economic downturn in previous years.

Property taxes provide the majority of the funding for the department, so the levy is the main source of funds.

By law, the fire department is allowed to increase the amount of property taxes collected by only 1 percent each year without a vote of the people. The fire board members are not able to ask for more than $1.50 per $1,000 from property owners.

“The dilemma is 1 percent doesn’t come close to covering what our inflation has been,” Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said.

The department received nearly 2,700 calls last year, 80 percent of which were for emergency medical service. That total has increased 10 percent each year.

Volunteers are heavily relied upon, and sometimes neighboring fire districts help meet the demands. The district has 54 volunteers who spend 25,000 hours per year in training and call responses.

Palmer said several volunteers come from off-island communities and stay at the fire station during their shifts. The furthest one currently commutes from Issaquah. Volunteers can be emergency medical technicians, firefighters or both.

“There are times when we’re really short-staffed,” Palmer said. “It’s just really difficult because people are so busy.”

The increase in funding would be used to hire eight full-time firefighters cross-trained as EMTs.

Currently within the department, the paid positions include full-time positions include the chief, three deputies, two maintenance workers, three office staff personnel and eight part-time firefighters.

The community’s fire insurance rating is another thing the strategic plan aims to improve. The rating impacts the amount home and business owners pay in insurance premiums. Staffing and apparatus deficiencies resulted in the district’s insurance rating being downgraded in 2018.

Palmer said Langley’s rating has gone from 5 to 6, and the unincorporated county from 6 to 7 due to these reasons, even with improvements the department made.

Of the 30-cents levy increase, 7 cents would go towards apparatus replacement and the rest towards hiring personnel.

The district will ask for public input during community meetings this spring. The full strategic plan is available on the fire department’s website.