Fire districts nix sales tax hike

A ballot measure that would have asked voters to approve a sales tax hike to help finance Island County’s emergency 911 system is dead due to a lack of agreement on how to allocate the proceeds.

As pitched by the Island County Board of Commissioners, the measure would have increased the sales tax one-tenth of one percent to support I-COM, with the revenue of about $591,000 given on a per capita basis to those government entities that pay for emergency services.

This would have meant rebates for Island County government and its three municipalities — Langley, Coupeville and Oak Harbor — though not for hospital and fire districts, because they are not traditionally funded by sales tax revenues.

Island County’s fire districts chose not to support the measure as proposed, which will keep it off the ballot this September. According to the terms of the legislative bill sponsoring the measure, counties must have 100 percent agreement among agencies on how to allocate the money.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said Friday that he’s disappointed the measure won’t be on the ballot. “I’m not sure voters would have supported it,” he said, “but I would have like the opportunity to find out.”

As proposed, the sales tax increase would have amounted to about $424,000 for the county, which pays approximately $546,000 a year in I-COM fees.

There were, however, other suggestions on how to split the money, including giving the full lump sum directly to I-COM and rebating it back to rate-payers on a per-user basis. This would have meant savings for the hospital and fire districts as well as the county and cities.

District 3 Fire Chief Don Smith said Friday he opposed the measure as it was written because it didn’t ensure that the extra revenues would go toward funding emergency services. “The county had the opportunity to take the (money) and reduce their overall budget,” he said.

For this reason, Smith said it wouldn’t have been fair to the voters to have the fire districts endorse such a measure. “Having our name attached to it wouldn’t be an honest thing to do,” he said. He added that if the tax revenue were spread also to the districts, there would be “an absolute guarantee that all of those funds would be used for additional emergency services.”

Smith said it would be more equitable to have the money go directly to I-COM in order to reduce costs across-the-board. “What we had told the commissioners is use the entire amount to reduce the overall cost of I-COM,” he said. “When the tide goes out, we all float at the same level.”

McDowell said he felt the measure as proposed by the board of commissioners was a fair means of apportioning the revenue, in that fire districts historically haven’t been supported by sales tax revenues anyway. Neither, he added, have they been hit as hard as the county by the recent budget crisis.

“As far as cuts from the state go, the cities and the counties are the only ones that suffered that,” McDowell said. He added that “there was no question” the I-COM tax would have helped the county deal with budget cuts. “The reality of that money is that it would have allowed us to deal with those cuts in a realistic manner,” he added. “Now, it makes things a lot more difficult.”

McDowell said it’s a shame the fire districts couldn’t agree on the allocation as proposed. “It wouldn’t have cost them that much money,” he said. “I wish they could have seen it differently.”

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