The question of how much Plateau voters are willing to pay for fire and emergency medical service returns to the ballot April 26. It is a question every fire district, department or regional fire authority in the state must wrestle with on a continuing basis.
Enumclaw-King County Fire District 28 Fire Chief Randy Fehr said the primary way the district provides services when someone calls 911 is through the property tax levy. Fehr said the calls for emergency services has jumped 33 percent in the past five years, while the number of firefighters available has decreased.
In January the Fire District 28 Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to place a property tax levy proposition on the ballot to pay for fire and emergency services.
Proposition No. 1 states the increase would allow the fire district to exceed the 1 percent limit on annual property tax increases to allow the rate to reach the authorized limit of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.
The levy, which if often referred to as a lid lift, is for six years. According to the district and the King County Assessor’s Office calculations the increase would cost residents $6.83 per month for a $200,000 home and $10.25 per month for a $300,000 home.
At the March 14 Enumclaw City Council meeting the council unanimously approved a resolution supporting Proposition No. 1.
During discussion of the resolution Councilman Chance La Fleur said, “If you pick up 911 the fire department is going to respond. There is a cost for them to respond. It’s expensive…. (It’s) very expensive to have 24/7, 365 days of service. I will avoid my one Starbucks a month to pay for it.”
La Fleur noted the fire department is not located in close proximity to other districts when more firefighters and equipment are necessary, known as mutual aid.
“We are not close to other fire districts,” La Fleur said. “We are not down in the valley where Kent can respond from one direction Auburn from another. And if Buckley is tied up with something; (they) can’t get here that quickly.”
City Administrator Chris Searcy said the staff recommended the City Council support the levy and he added that Fehr, “is a chief that is on the ball.”
Fehr addressed the council earlier in the meeting concerning the levy. He said the fire board and administration had made all the “essential and nonessential cuts” and if the levy does not pass more firefighters will be laid off.
The last levy lid lift proposition that went before voters in November 2013 failed to gain the necessary simple majority. Fehr noted in 2013 two firefighters were laid off. The chief said the department had four firefighters on duty at all times to respond to emergencies. In 2013 after the levy failure that dropped to three. Fehr said if the levy fails the number available may be two firefighters.
In response to a question from Councilman Hoke Overland, Fehr said the state requirement is “two in, two out”, which means for a rescue in a burning building, there must be two firefighters who go into the building and two outside the building if one or both of the firefighters are injured. He said the rescue-mode exception is “two in, one out”, if two go in the fire truck driver can be the one outside.
Fehr said if the number of on duty is two, the firefighters cannot perform a rescue until mutual aid arrives.
“We can only spray water on the building,” Fehr said.
Fehr said there is about $1.1 million needed to replace firefighters protective clothing, a 30-year-old fire trucks and 21-year-old aid car. The department also needs building upgrades including emergency power generators at two of our fire stations.
Fehr said if the levy fails it could affect property insurance. The Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau provides property underwriting and rating information for the insurance industry. If the bureau downgrades the department it can cause property insurance in the district to increase.
The district is collecting $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for 2016. Fehr said district was collection $1.09 in 2015, but due to the increase in property taxes and construction the figure dropped to $1.02.
In 2013 when the levy went before voters the district was collecting $1.19 per thousand.
Fehr presented a slide at the council meeting showing the district collects the lowest of the surrounding fire agencies.
Mountain View Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Greg Smith, who lives in the district 28 area, said by email, “I could not provide anything close to an adequate level of service at 1.02 per 1,000 AV (assessed value).”
Smith also said he supports the levy as a citizen of the district.
“As a citizen, I can now support the ‘lid lift’ as I think the district now has adequate financial controls in place (new board) and the new fire chief provides citizens with great financial reports, not smoke and mirrors,” he wrote.
After the levy failed in the contentious 2013 election, the district has gone through a wave of changes including laying off two firefighters and two administrative staff.
Fire Chief Joe Clow resigned in May 2014. He was replaced on an interim basis by Doug Dawson. In August Randy Fehr took over as the chief of the district. He has been employed by the department since 1998.
Following a November 2015 proposition to expand the board from three to five members that was approved by voters, Enumclaw Police Chief and Amy Trachte were appointed.
Fehr noted to the Enumclaw City Council in 2015 there were 328 times the fire department could not respond to 911 calls immediately because firefighters were already on another call. Fehr said there are now about 500 additional calls per year.
Fehr said if the levy passes, three more firefighters will be hired, returning to department to the 2012 staffing levels. The chief also said the levy funds will allow the department to replace all needed equipment and complete the building improvements.
Election Day is April 26, which is an all mail ballot. The ballot must be postmarked by April 26. Ballots will be mailed out April 6.