Two local fire districts propose fire levy lid lifts
— Created July 22, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kacie Jo Voeller
On Whidbey Island, some emergency and fire service needs have been met for decades by North Whidbey Fire and Rescue and South Whidbey Fire/EMS. For both districts, call numbers have seen a steady rise in recent years. To better serve the surrounding communities, each department has proposed a respective fire levy lid lift to cover rising expenses.
John Clark, the fire chief at North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, said while the department is limited to a one percent increase in revenue a year, costs such as gas, equipment and other needs have been rising by three to five percent each year. In response, the department is asking the public to consider a fire levy lid lift of 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value during the Nov. 3 General Election.
“If you get a one percent increase in your revenue that you are budgeting for, but you have a three to five percent increase in expenses, sooner or later, no matter how prudent you are with it, the expenses are going to outpace the revenue,” he said.
On the south end of the island, H.L. “Rusty” Palmer, fire chief for South Whidbey Fire/EMS, said the fire district is asking voters to approve a fire levy lid lift of 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value on the Aug. 4 Primary Election ballot to help replace fire apparatus and hire up to eight full-time staff members.
“We are hopeful that voters will prioritize emergency services when looking at how to spend their tax dollars,” he said. “The pandemic has shown this need, but it’s more than that. We want to provide an adequate emergency response 24 hours a day, which we currently cannot do but is needed.”
Clark, who has been in the fire service for 40 years, said call volumes have gone up 45 percent in the last 10 years. In addition to having more calls, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue is due to replace two fire trucks. Clark said if approved, the levy lid lift would be focused on providing the funds needed to purchase new fire engines.
“We have two fire trucks that need to be replaced,” he said. “They are at their replacement point now; they are still operational but it is at the point where repairs outpace the value of the vehicle and reliability. It is not like when you go to start your car at home and it does not start and you are late for work. If you have a fire truck that does not start, that is a bigger issue.”
Palmer, who has served as the fire chief at South Whidbey Fire/EMS since 2010, said calls have risen 12 percent since 2014.
“We have seen the number of calls increasing for some time,” he said. “This year we are level with last year’s numbers year to date. We do anticipate call volumes continuing to rise as a result of population growth and people visiting the island for tourism.”
Clark said although North Whidbey Fire and Rescue has been prudent with its resources and uses savings to purchase items, costs continue to rise above revenue. Clark said replacing the fire trucks and ensuring up-to-date and adequate fire apparatus will help maintain the community insurance rating, which is linked to how much premiums cost for certain home and business owners.
“We have been buying capital based on savings and being frugal with our money and we are at the end of where that cycle is going to work using that savings to pay off expenses,” he said. “What this levy would do is it will allow us to continue our capital plan so we would have reliable equipment to run calls.”
Palmer said volunteers are a key piece of the South Whidbey Fire/EMS, and the levy would help to support volunteers by bringing in full-time personnel.
“Our volunteers are the backbone of this organization,” he said. “Our call volumes and training requirements have increased to the point where we are losing them (volunteers) because some are struggling with the time commitments necessary to train and respond. Full-time personnel will allow our volunteers to continue to participate in the organization.”
Tom Gideon, a volunteer who has been with South Whidbey Fire/EMS for 12 years, said he enjoys working with the volunteer team at the department. However, he said with increased call volumes, meeting the emergency services needs can sometimes wear on the available volunteers.
“The levy is super important because it helps the volunteers,” he said. “The people that I have that volunteer with me at Station 36 are all really super people. They go above and beyond. But, it grinds on them.”
Palmer said COVID-19 has also had implications on volunteer availability.
“We have lost volunteer personnel due to the pandemic because they are at risk of catching the virus or bringing it home to a vulnerable family member,” he said. “The pandemic itself has shown just how important emergency services are to the community. Emergency calls now require extreme caution and care when responding to the pandemic.”
Gideon, who serves as lieutenant at Bayview Station 36, said COVID-19 has impacted the district and shown the need for additional support.
“The whole deal with the COVID-19 stuff has really hit us because a lot of the volunteers, including myself, are in what you would consider the high-risk (group), so that has hurt us quite a bit,” he said.
Clark said North Whidbey Fire and Rescue plans to continue to provide information to the public and will also be forming a citizen’s committee to set up plans and help shape the district in the future. Applications for the committee are available on North Whidbey Fire and Rescue’s website until July 31.
“We are going to provide a lot of education, we have really tried to up transparency and public information, but I would just ask if the public has questions that they ask us,” he said.