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Central Whidbey Fire wants levy increase

On Sept. 14, residents of Central Whidbey will decide whether to raise their own property taxes in order to help Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue keep up with escalating costs and replace aging fire engines.

The board of fire commissioners voted this month to place a tax initiative request on the Sept. 14 ballot asking voters to increase the property tax levy rate by 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

If approved, it would raise an extra $87,000 a year. That equates to an extra $17.50 a year for the owner of a $175,000 house, which is the average cost of a home in Central Whidbey.

Central Whidbey Fire Chief Joe Biller said the proposal needed to be put on the ballot because of Initiative 747, which was adopted by voters in 2001. It put a limit on increases in government spending of 1 percent a year unless approved by the voters.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize,” Biller said, “if you’re spending is increasing 4 to 5 percent and you’re only taking in an additional 1 percent, you’re going to run through your reserves.”

According to Biller, the rising cost of fuel, benefits, personnel, equipment repairs, unfunded mandates for improved safety standards, and especially medical insurance, has driven up costs. Operational costs have increased an average 4.5 percent annually since 2001. The district last asked voters for an increase in 1992.

“We’ve had a 40 to 45 percent increase just in medical benefits,” Biller said.

Traditionally, Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue collects the lowest, or one of the lowest, in total dollar amount from property taxes among the four fire districts in Island County. Last year the Central district received $1.2 million; Fire District 2 in North Whidbey received $1.1 million; Fire District 3 in South Whidbey received $2 million; and Camano collected $1.25 million.

Property owners in Central Whidbey, from Libbey Road to just north of Freeland, currently pay $1.19 per $1,000 of property value. If the levy passes, it would increase to $1.29. By comparison, those in North Whidbey’s District 2 have a rate this year of 0.92 per $1,000.

One trend that has increased costs for the district in the past, and will likely continue into the future, is the declining number of volunteer firefighters. Biller said this follows a nationwide trend likely precipitated by busy lifestyles and the increased state and federal requirements on firefighters.

“Requirements have more than doubled over the last 10 years,” Biller said.

He pointed out that volunteers have to get the same training and pass the same tests as paid, “career” firefighters.

In order to maintain the force, the district has slowly increased the number of paid staff members. There is currently a chief, a secretary and three firefighters. Biller said there were plans to hire up to four more firefighters, but it’s been put off because of budget concerns.

There are currently 37 volunteer firefighters covering the 50-square-mile district area. Fifteen years ago, there were 79 volunteers.

Biller said the district has been able to save taxpayers a whole lot of money by avoiding bonds and interest payments, by saving money and paying cash. The district has spent over $3 million on capital projects over the last 15 years, which has included buying three fire engines, two tenders and building three fire stations — at Race Road, Day Road in Greenbank and in Coupeville.

If the district borrowed the money, Biller estimates it would have increased the cost by up to $1 million.

Over the next four years, the district is scheduled to replace two fire engines and a rescue rig. One of the engines was up for replacement last year, but that was postponed.

Of course, firefighters do a heck of a lot more than fight fires. They respond to medical emergencies, car accidents, water rescues, hazardous material complaints, downed trees and other road obstructions, and they promote safety in the community. A number of the firefighters went above and beyond the call of duty to pose for a popular calendar, which raised money for an infrared camera.

While some fire departments in the nation have started charging individual victims for their services, Biller said a focus group of citizens were adamantly opposed to that. That leaves the option, he said, of asking the voters for more money or cutting service levels.

“We’re trying to provide good, basic, quality fire services,” he said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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