Fire, police chiefs lobby for building improvements

Oak Harbor’s growth has impacted the fire and police departments’ abilities to maintain service.

Both of the chiefs for Oak Harbor’s fire and police departments said the city’s growing population has impacted their departments’ abilities to maintain service and are asking for millions of dollars for improvements to staffing and equipment.

Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill warned city council members at a workshop meeting last month that if staffing does not increase and a new station is not built, the city’s fire safety rating could fall — which could lead to a 25% increase in property owners’ insurance premiums.

Oak Harbor currently has a rating of four on a 10-point scale from the Washington Survey and Rating Bureau; Merrill said that if the department were re-rated in this year it would likely fall to a five or six.

Since Station 81 was built on East Whidbey Avenue in 1992, the city has grown by almost 6 square miles, added 3,123 more housing units with 500 in progress. The population grew by 6,324 in that time, Merrill said.

The chief said the city needs a fire station in the southwest section of the city to improve response times and maintain a good rating. The idea is not new; a consultant projected the need for a new fire station in the area 15 years ago. The city even collected fees from developers to construct a new fire station several years ago, but it had to refund the money because it did not build the station in a timely manner, Merrill explained.

The new station would be smaller than Station 81. It would have a pumper engine and a quint ladder truck, along with two new firefighters, two new lieutenants and eight new paid-on-call firefighters. The price tag for the new station, including purchasing the land, was estimated to be $6 million.

Although the Oak Harbor Police Department does not need a new building, Chief Kevin Dresker said it does need some upgrades. The 70-year-old building was last renovated in 1989.

Dresker suggested that a remodel would change the lobby and the jail. An addition to the front of the building was estimated to cost $350,000, and an interior remodel would cost $150,000. The chief noted he wanted to join the night entrance to the annex area, and perhaps join it to the front entrance.

He also said the department needs to identify a new funding source for two existing police officer positions and a new evidence technician.

Finance Director David Goldman identified three ways the city could pay for the upcoming expenses. The city could ask voters for a levy lid lift, which Goldman said is most common for operational costs, or an excess levy, which was designed to pay back long-term debt for capital projects. Both would increase property taxes.

Or the city could institute a “public safety sales tax” of one-tenth of 1%. Oak Harbor would have to share 15% of the tax revenues it receives with Island County if it adopts its own tax.

On the other hand, Island County could adopt a public safety sales tax of up to three-tenths of 1%. Then the county would keep 60% of the tax revenues and disburse the remaining 40% to cities and towns based on population. Goldman noted that the sales tax would not generate enough funding to pay for all of the upgrades to the police and fire departments.

Council members did not decide which funding source to pursue at the meeting. City staff suggested putting one of the funding sources on the 2022 general election ballot.

Council members voiced their support for the upgrades, but Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns cautioned that the timing may not be right because Oak Harbor Public Schools has plans to ask voters for a bond to replace five schools and the transportation center in February 2022.