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Fire district urges levy lift approval

Questions have been raised by the electorate as to why North Whidbey Fire and Rescue is seeking approval of a levy lift lid from the current 64.7 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to $1.00 per $1,000.

Under the current levy rate, the district collected approximately $1,283,500 in 2007. If the levy lift passes, that figure will jump by approximately $700,000 to $1,983,600.

Taxes on a $300,000 house would increase from roughly $194 to $300.

In an effort to make voters aware of what the fire district is up against, Chief Marv Koorn and District Commissioner Bruce Carman explained what the money received from the levy lift, if approved, would be used for and why it is needed.

Koorn said the last time the district’s levy was adjusted was in the late 1980s and at that time, the levy was 85 cents per $1,000.

Since then property value has increased, but in fact, the money received from tax assessments has gone down.

“For example, just because the assessed value of your property doubles, that doesn’t mean we automatically receive double the taxes,” Koorn explained. “In truth, when the value doubles, our money goes down.”

Koorn said the assessed value of property within the district is roughly $2 billion, but that doesn’t mean the tax money received has increased enough of offset operating costs.

“Property value and taxes don’t increase at the same rate,” Koorn said. “If that was the case, we wouldn’t need a levy lift.”

By law, the fire district can only raise taxes on percent each year without a vote of the people.

“That 101 percent is the killer,” Koorn said.

“With the cost of living going up at approximately three percent every year and we can only ask for a one-percent increase, that’s a two percent difference right off the top which only makes us fall farther behind,” Carman added, “The cost of equipment, fuel and repairs have increased at a much faster rate than our one percent a year can keep up with.”

If the levy lift is approved, the district already has plans in place for the increased revenue.

The primary outlay of funds will be for purchasing new equipment in the years to come to replace older vehicles currently in use and for station improvements.

Koorn said the primary improvements have been scheduled for the Heller Road station.

“We have already set aside $2.8 million for this which, initially when we started the project, looked like it was going to be enough,” he said. “As we went through the process, the cost increased way more rapidly than we anticipated.”

The current estimate for improvements at the Heller Road station is $4.2 million.

Two other fire stations within the North Whidbey Fire and Rescue district are also in need of repair.

“The Cornet Bay station at Monkey Hill and Troxell Roads, and the station at San de Fuca were built in 1960 and 1961,” Koorn said. “Both are the original block buildings built by volunteers.”

He said the district planned to pressure wash both buildings last year, but ran into some problems.

“When we used the pressure washer, morter started falling out from between the blocks, so we decided we couldn’t pressure wash very hard,” Koorn said.

The Heller Road station is in need of more office space in addition to increased space for equipment.

The second major outlay of funds would be earmarked for equipment replacement.

The current cost for fire engines is more than $350,000 and rescue trucks have a price tag of more than $150,000.

“We also need to have the rescue breathing equipment all the firefighters use to enter burning buildings replaced,” Koorn said. “The cost for this alone is $300,000, which will have to come out of our budget if we cannot obtain a grant.”

Koorn said the breathing equipment is 12 years old and has a life span of 15 years.

“We are working on a grant, but we haven’t heard anything as of yet,” he said.

In 2007, the North Whidbey Fire Distrtct responded to more than 1,700 calls, but was able to keep the cost of operation down through the use of volunteers.

“Our volunteer force is something we’re very proud of,” Koorn said.

Money received from the levy lift lid should cover the district’s expenses for the foreseeable future.

“The last time we requested a levy increase was in 1987, and that was more than 20 years ago,” Koorn said.

Without an increase in revenue, the district will have to make serious choices in the future involving vehicles, personnel, training, response time, station locations and equipment.

“A lot of people think we’re just out to get their tax money and let it pile up, but that isn’t the case,” Koorn said.

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