Oak Harbor citizens voted to raise property taxes in order for the fire department to build a new station, hire more staff and purchase new equipment.
In the Nov. 8 election, the fire protection property tax levy lid lift passed with 60% of the vote and the general obligation bonds for fire station and equipment passed with 62% of the vote. The vote for the bonds required a 60% supermajority.
Fire Chief Ray Merrill said he wasn’t certain beforehand that the bond would pass.
“It’s always tough when you’re asking for more money for taxes,” he said.
Merrill said he was “really thankful” that both had passed as both were necessary for the department to make improvements.
The levy lid lift will cover operating expenses of the second fire station, new employees to staff it, replacement of a 24-year-old fire engine and protective equipment and tools.
The bond will cover the purchase of the land and construction of the second station in the southwest area of the city and the purchase of a quint ladder truck, which is a combination of an engine and ladder truck.
The levy lid lift will increase property taxes an average of $67 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value. The bond will raise property taxes $29 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value.
Merrill said the next step is for the bond and levy to be certified on Nov 20. Once that happens, the fire department’s finance team will work with the bond council to get the bonds advertised and sold. The fire department will receive the first half of the money at the end of April when property tax money is due.
The department, which is part of Oak Harbor city government, will finish up the design details for the new fire station with an architectural firm and purchase a property for the station that city officials have been looking at for about three years. Merrill said if everything goes well, it will take about two years to get the station built.
As far as the new equipment goes, Merrill said it will be about a year to a year and half before the department can purchase the new fire engine and quint ladder truck, according to the manufacturers he’s been in touch with.
Merrill said he was expecting a lengthy process but the most important step – getting the bond and levy approved – is done.
The department will begin hiring new employees in 2023, staggering them throughout the year.
The success of the levy and bond measures is the culmination of years of work and advocacy by Merrill. They will address concerns fire officials have had in regards to response times and staffing, as well as the city’s fire rating.
The response time for homes in the south and southwest areas of the city are over eight minutes. A 2016 analysis determined that 24% of Oak Harbor homes are not within the recommended standard of a 1.5 mile radius or a four-minute response time; continued growth in the area since then means that even more homes are outside this radius.
Merrill said on any given day, there are only three firefighters on shift for the entire city. Oak Harbor has 0.65 firefighters per 1,000 people, while comparable cities have 1.25 firefighters per 1,000 people.
It has been over 30 years since the Oak Harbor fire department had a bond or levy to raise taxes.