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Fire board delays levy "lid lift" try

The Bainbridge Island Fire Department will not ask voters to approve a property tax levy “lid lift” this fall.

The tax-hike try has been pushed back at least a year, as commissioners scale back a planned fire hall renovation and mull new ways to fund long-term capital needs.

“I’m really concerned about the overall taxation on Bainbridge Island,” said Doug Johnson, fire commissioner. “(And) I didn’t feel we’d done enough groundwork, and gotten out enough infromation to support a lid lift.”

The decision to delay the levy try was reached during discussion at Wednesday’s fire board meeting. Board chair Glen Tyrrell and commissioner Jim Johnson were not available for comment Friday.

Since the passage of state Initiative 747, any tax hike of more than 1 percent per year must go to the ballot. The fire district’s 10-year plan has called for voter-approved lid-lifts in 2003 and 2007 to fund operations and capital programs.

The first lift would have raised $845,000 in new revenue in 2004 – a 26 percent jump from the $3.6 million collected this year – and additional money each year thereafter, to fund renovation of the Madison Avenue fire hall, personnel costs and other needs.

But Johnson said the station renovation likely will be scaled back dramatically, from a $1.7 million project to $800,000 or less.

That – and some concerns over public relations – inspired commissioners to push levy tries back to 2004 and 2008.

Now the first is projected to bring in about $690,000, largely to cover growing personnel costs.

The fire district has traditionally paid for facility expansions, new fire trucks and equipment upgrades out of current revenues.

But that practice has come under recent criticism, with some citizens urging the district to use low-interest bonds to pay for capital needs.

Such a strategy would spread costs over a growing island tax base, specifically new residents who will benefit from the improvements in future years.

Commissioners now are discussing what projects might be appropriate for bond funding, and under what terms they should assume debt, Johnson said.

“It’s a little like credit card purchases,” he said. “You can keep adding to the debt, but eventually you’re going to say ‘whoa, there’s a lot there.’”

Wednesday’s discussion followed a pair of meetings between fire commissioners and a focus group of island residents.

Participants in those meetings were skeptical of raising tax revenues beyond what would be needed for general fire department operations.

Several also were critical of the recent board decision to change the department to a “traditional” model, replacing the executive director with the fire chief at the top of the organizational chart. One citizen said the change appeared to have more to do with personalities than issues, while others said perceived infighting had tarnished the department’s image.

It was important, one said, that the fire department not become a “spectacle” like the Bainbridge Island City Council.

But participants were also fundamentally supportive of the department, which they said should do a better job promoting itself. They cited the tax-saving work of 50-60 volunteers who show up at fires and accidents for nominal reimbursement – $6 per call.

Focus group member Wini Jones said she’d like to see a Bainbridge Island firefighter calendar – tastefully done, of course.

“I think the funds could be dedicated to a charity of their choice,” Jones said. “It could be a very fun way of getting them and all the wonderful things they do seen by the public.”

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Fire commissioner Doug Johnson has announced that he will not seek another term on the three-person fire board this fall.

Johnson said he was worn down by ongoing negotiations with unionized firefighters, and other contentious issues in the department.

He was alone among commissioners last month in opposing the reorganization of department management. The board voted 2-1 to eliminate the executive director position and make the fire chief the head of the department.

Said Johnson: “They’re not allowing progress to get in the way of 100 years of tradition.”

Johnson also said he supports citizen calls to expand the fire board to five commissioners, to improve oversight of the department.

Filing for Johnson’s seat, which carries a six-year term, begins in July.

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