Fire board sets May ‘lid lift’ try

The district seeks a 20 percent hike to fund trucks, operations.

You don’t see firefighters hanging off the back of speeding fire engines anymore – that unsafe practice was outlawed by the state years ago.

Yet some of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department’s engines – “apparatus,” in fire parlance – are old enough to have a rear platform as the sole accommodation for personnel. When the fire bell sounds, engines and their crews roll separately.

“We’re using fire trucks that are 30 years old as first-line apparatus, which is 10 years beyond industry standards,” said Jim Walkowski, Bainbridge Island fire chief. “There are definitely areas where we are behind.”

Updating the department’s emergency fleet, and just keeping up with inflation for general operations, are the goals behind a property tax hike the department will put before voters this spring.

As expected, fire commissioners last week voted to put a “lid lift” on the May 18 ballot.

The lift would bump up the department’s property tax revenues by 20 percent, from $3.758 million this year, to a base of $4.618 million in 2005. That would increase by 1 percent per year through 2010 when the next lid lift is anticipated, according to the department’s 10-year financial plan.

Over that period, the additional tax revenue would fund purchase of two new fire engines, three new medic units, and a new “rescue truck,” a support vehicle that carries air bottles, extrication equipment and tools. Four staff vehicles would also be replaced.

No new paid fire personnel would be added until 2008; assuming aid call volumes rise at their present rate, the department would have to add three paramedics that year, Walkowski said.

Over the last decade, the department’s calls have increased by 67 percent, primarily in the realm of aid responses.

No new facilities are planned, although the district would like to replace a failing floor in the Bucklin Hill fire hall’s vehicle bay, and add a small diesel fuel pump there.

Beyond Walkowski and assistant chief Luke Carpenter, the district employs 10 career firefighters and paramedics, two office assistants and a mechanic.

Their work is supplemented by volunteers whose ranks currently number 56, and growing.

General levy assumptions include a 3 percent per year rise in personnel costs for salary and benefits, 4.5 percent overall for operations.

“In our opinion, it’s a very bare-bones budget,” Walkowski said.

The department hasn’t sought a levy lid lift since 1993, when compliant voters set the fire levy rate at 62 cents per $1,000 valuation.

After that, the fire board routinely raised property tax revenues by 6 percent per year as allowed by law, until that limit was capped at 1 percent by Initiative 747.

Fire officials now say they can’t even keep up with inflation under the 1 percent cap.

Funding for capital needs has been an issue of some dispute; a citizen watchdog group has in recent years criticized the department for funding big-dollar items like trucks and buildings out of current revenues, rather than issuing low-interest debt. Bond financing, the argument goes, would allow payments to be spread over the 20-year life of the purchase, easing the burden on today’s taxpayers.

The fire board has been generally unswayed by that view, but did remove plans for a new fire hall from the levy budget.

The Bucklin Hill station, nearly 40 years old, will have to be replaced at some point in the future, Walkowski said, possibly at a different location further south.

Voters could be asked to approve a construction bond at that time, he suggested.

Walkowski, who was moved to the top of department in an organizational shake-up last year, said that in addition to a levy campaign, the department will try to market itself better in the coming months.

Among the key messages will be the value of having a largely volunteer department, when each paid firefighter position costs around $90,000 per year in salary and benefits.

Without volunteers, Walkowski said, “you couldn’t afford fire service on the island.”

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