Fire department eyes 2004 tax hike

After a “status quo” spending year in 2003, Bainbridge fire officials expect to ask voters next fall for a property tax “lid lift” to support future operations.

“With the 1 percent (property tax) limitation, we can’t even keep pace with inflation,” said Ken Guy, fire department executive director. “We’ve also got a growing call volume.”

At its meeting this evening, the Bainbridge Island Fire Board will take comment on a proposed property tax rate of about $1.01 per $1,000 assessed valuation for 2003 maintenance and operations, down from the current rate of $1.12. With tax revenues from new construction, the levy will generate about $3.65 million, an amount within the 1 percent revenue growth cap imposed under Initiative 747.

Those revenues will be sufficient to cover operations in what Guy called a “transition” year, before new personnel and capital needs kick in.

A public hearing on the 2003 levy is planned, with the meeting beginning at 7 p.m. at the Madison Avenue fire hall.

The status quo will be short-lived; the department’s 10-year financial plan shows significant investment in new equipment in 2004, with the planned replacement of two small-ish fire tenders and two aging medic units.

The 2004 lift would bump revenues to about $4.52 million. Because the department has generally maintained a “pay as you go” approach to capital needs, the new vehicles would be paid for through general revenues rather than through a dedicated, voter-approved bond.

Beyond capital needs, personnel costs are increasing as the department develops a “home-grown” paramedic program.

The department has historically contracted with other fire services for paramedic support. But the department recently hired two of its own firefighters as entry-level paramedics, and a third position requiring more experience will also be created.

The trainees are now in a 10-month program at Harborview, and after in-the-field training should be ready for active service by the start of 2004.

The move was made to meet changes in demands for emergency services. Department statistics show that while the number of fire calls on Bainbridge Island has grown by about 1 percent year, calls for paramedics have grown at four times that rate.

Fire officials attribute the shift to changing demographics and an aging island population. Federal census data show that during the 1990s, the 45-60 year-old age group on Bainbridge grew by 92 percent, while younger age groups grew only modestly or actually declined.

“The fire department is essentially turning into an emergency medical services agency,” Guy said.

The department will have about 12 career firefighters on the payroll next year, and will continue to rely on a roster of about 50 volunteers.

The 2004 lid lift, which voters will probably see on the ballot next September, would be the first of two, with the second planned in 2008.

No other new levies are projected until 2011, when voters will probably be asked to approve a $3.8 million bond issue for replacement of the Bucklin Hill fire station.

Voters will see one fire-related tax issue in the meantime; Kitsap County Central Communications (Cencom) will put a one-tenth of a cent sales tax hike on the ballot next spring.

The agency, which handles 911 dispatches countywide, now depends heavily on user agencies including the Bainbridge fire and police departments for funding.

The proposition to go before voters will be a tax swap of sorts. If the sales tax hike is approved, Cencom officials say they will forego a property tax hike for construction of a new emergency communications building approved by voters in fall 2001. It will also reduce costs to user agencies.

“We really do need a stable funding source for emergency services in Kitsap County to reduce the financial burden of user jurisdictions, thereby freeing that money up for them to use on other critical government services,” said Ron McAffee, Cencom director.

Kitsap County reporter Amy Crumley contributed to this report.

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