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Fire levy turnout sparse

The apparent mood of voters regarding a possible levy lift lid by the North Whidbey Fire and Rescue District is that there is no mood.

In February, a proposal to lift the property tax levy from the current 62.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to $1 per $1,000 was overwhelmingly defeated 70 percent to 30 percent by district voters so this time around, fire district commissioners decided to try a different approach to sell the proposal.

Commissioners and district staff mailed 130 letters to selected voters within the district inviting them to a 7 p.m. Wednesday meeting at the Heller Road fire station where an overview of the North Whidbey Fire and Rescue District’s present, past and possible future would be presented. The overview was to be followed by an open discussion as to the direction the district should take.

Despite the invitation, only five members of the voting public attended the meeting and they were outnumbered more than two-to-one by firefighters and board members.

Shrugging off the low turnout, Commissioner Bruce Carman said he appreciated those who did show up. “They will help us out a little,” he said.

Fire Chief Marv Koorn followed with a video presentation on the history of how the original Fire District No. 2 evolved into its present configuration.

“We started out in 1950 with just one engine that the Oak Harbor Fire Department used to respond to fire calls outside the city limits,” Koorn said. “The first station we had was at San de Fuca and was built entirely by volunteers. Today we have eight stations within the district.”

Koorn explained that there used to be two fire districts, north and south, but in 2002 they combined and became the North Whidbey Fire and Rescue District.

“Today we cover a total of 55 square miles, excluding the city of Oak Harbor, from Deception Pass on the north to Libbey Road on the south,” he said.

Koorn said there has been an increase in calls for service every year.

“In the years 2001 to 2006 we had a 48 percent increase in calls but due to Initiative 747, our budget only increased by six percent,” he said.

Approved by voters statewide, Initiative 747 limits any governmental entity from raising the tax rate by more than one percent from the amount of money collected the previous year.

The only way any additional funds can be collected is by voter approval of a raise in the levy or through a bond issue, which also requires voter approval.

Koorn said additional funds are needed to “maintain and enhance the capabilities” of the district.

Without more money, a few years down the road, the district would have to look at closing fire stations, deferring maintenance on buildings and apparatus, not replacing high-priced equipment such as fire engines, and force volunteers to continue to use out-of-date technology and equipment.

“This would also result in an increase in our response time,” Koorn said.

Specifically, Koorn said breathing equipment which is required for firefighters, needs to be replaced.

“We have about four years left on the equipment we have and there is no way to upgrade. It will need to be replaced,” he said.

If the district operated with out-dated equipment, Koorn said there is a strong possibility that insurance rates would increase.

“On a $300,000 home, if our insurance rating drops from six to eight, that would cost the homeowner an additional $146 a year,” he said. “Conversely, if we can get a levy lift of 32 cents per $1,000 of assessment value which is what we’re asking for, the cost to a homeowner would be $96.”

One of the suggestions made during the discussion session is that the department should be specific in how it would use the levy money.

Rather than just saying we want to remodel some of the older fire stations and build a new facility to replace the Heller Road station, the department should indicate it needs this amount of money for new fire engines and this amount of money for new radios and equipment.

If the district decides to proceed with the levy lift proposal, it would appear on the November ballot.

A second meeting to discuss the situation is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at the Heller Road fire station.

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