Fire levy goes down in flames

North Whidbey firefighters were stunned this week when voters overwhelmingly rejected a levy that would have improved facilities and replaced equipment.

As of Friday morning, the North Whidbey Fire and Rescue levy was failing with 70.62 percent of the voters rejecting it and only 29.38 percent of the voters approving it.

The levy required 60 percent approval to pass and it would have given the fire district enough money to pay for replacing the Heller Road Fire Station.

“We obviously thought it would go through,” said Chief Marv Koorn before a special fire commissioner meeting Thursday night. “We weren’t specific enough on what we asked for.”

He learned of the sour results Tuesday evening. He immediately started to contact people who voted against the levy to find out their reasoning.

Koorn said some voters felt there was a lot of confusion with the language on the levy proposal. Some thought they asked to approve a $1 increase in the levy. In actuality the proposal would have increased the fire district levy from 64 cents per $1,000 assessed value to $1 per per thousand.

In addition to the possible confusion surrounding the ballot language, officials realized they had not done enough to inform voters about the need for the proposal.

“The three months we gave ourselves was too short a time to tell the public what we need,” Koorn said.

Commissioner Bruce Carman said that firefighters didn’t get moving with promoting the levy until after the ballots had gone out. Ballots in the all-mail election were sent out three weeks before the Feb. 19 election date.

“I don’t think we presented enough information to them,” Commissioner Larry Morse said.

The levy rejection also comes as officials learned they didn’t receive a $350,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That money would have paid for replacement of the breathing apparatus firefighters use.

During Thursday night’s special meeting, the commissioners, along with eight firefighters in attendance, talked about how to improve the fire district’s public relations. Ideas ranged from meeting with community groups, holding open houses at area fire stations or publishing a newsletter to residents in the district.

Officials also talked about the effects of the levy rejection. They discussed rearranging projects, the possibility of combining fire stations and prioritizing upcoming projects.

Firefighters spoke about the possibility of running the levy again, but the earliest that could happen would be November.

The levy would have allowed the fire district to pay off the Heller Road station replacement in five years. Koorn said the fire district has $2.5 million saved to pay for the cost of the building. However, inflation has driven up costs of the construction project. Koorn said the building was estimated to cost $2 million three years ago, now that estimate has climbed to $4 million.

In addition to the planned replacement of the Heller Road Fire Station, officials also hope to improve the stations on Cornet Bay Road and San de Fuca, both of which were built in the 1960s.