Two levies key to new fire station

Oak Harbor residents will notice something unusual on the ballot this year.

Oak Harbor residents will notice something unusual on the ballot this year — two separate measures to fund one goal.

The Oak Harbor Fire Department is asking for an increase in property taxes for the first time in 33 years. Two separate propositions — a levy lid lift and an excess levy, or bond — will together fund a new fire station and the employees to staff it, as well as updated equipment.

The levy lid lift would cover the increase of operational expenses. This includes operating expenses of the second fire station, additional staffing that will be needed, replacement of a 24-year-old fire engine and protective equipment and tools.

The levy lid lift needs a simple majority to pass and will increase property taxes an average of $67 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value.

The excess levy bond can only be used for capital purchases. The bond will cover the purchase of the land, 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 bond needs a supermajority of 60% to pass and will raise property taxes $29 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value.

If it passes, the city will have the authority to issue up to $9.2 million in general obligation bonds for public safety.

“That could vary as well,” said Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill of the tax rates. “That’s only if we end up with $9.2 million. If we only need bonds for $8.5 million, that amount will come down.”

According to the city of Oak Harbor’s website, the last time the fire depatrtment requested a levy or bond was in 1989 for the construction of the current fire station on East Whidbey Avenue and the 1992 aerial ladder truck still in service today.

Since 1990, there has been roughly a 43% increase in Oak Harbor’s population, as well as a 51% increase in the number of homes and 91% increase in the fire department’s call volume, Merrill said.

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.

“They could be on a call somewhere and a second call comes in and it’ll take us an extremely long amount of time to get to somebody because we don’t have enough staffing,” Merrill said.

He said it is imperative that both the levy and the bond pass. If only the bond passes, the department could build the new station and purchase the new fire vehicle, but there would be no one to staff either.

“We would have a nice-looking facility and a new piece of equipment but really serves no good purpose,” Merrill said.

If only the levy passes, the department could hire more staffing, but it would not improve the department’s overall response time to the south and southwest areas of the city.

According to the city’s website, general obligation bonds are sold to investors who are repaid with interest over time from property tax collections. General obligation bonds carry the lowest interest rates of all debt alternatives available to cities.

A levy lid lift increases property tax collection by more than the 1% per year “lid” put in place by Initiative 747 in 2001. The limit remains regardless of inflation, population growth or increased demand for service.

The city’s website states that if the bond and levy do not pass, the construction of a new second fire station will remain a priority, but the city will have to save up money for construction which will take much longer.

“All we ask is that people get out and vote,” Merrill said.