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Former fire officials question district’s 20 percent tax hike

Voters will be asked to decide the issue on the May 18 ballot.

Is a 20 percent property tax hike for local fire and aid services too high?

Two former fire officials have joined a citizen group in questioning the Bainbridge Island Fire Department’s May 18 “lid lift” try, saying the department has not begun long-range planning, and that other funding avenues have not been explored.

Respondents were afraid that lower-income seniors and others might be afraid to call 911, if they didn’t feel they could pay for an ambulance ride.

Such a move could actually cost more money than it generated, Walkowski said, because the department and its paid staff would likely take on basic life-support calls now handled by the non-profit Bainbridge Island Ambulance Association.

In the meantime, he said, the department has worked on efficiencies that will save tax dollars, Walkowski noted. The department soon will share a vehicle fueling facility with the park district, and is developing a wash bay for use by other agencies.

Johnson, Guy and Fortner say that regardless of their critique, they support the department and its core of volunteers.

“You won’t find a more dedicated group of volunteers,” Johnson said. “They’re absolutely dedicated to providing the best service they can.”

But the fire department, he said, “has never had to consider cost” to taxpayers. While the department hasn’t asked voters for a lid lift in 10 years, the fire board routinely increased the department’s property tax take by 6 percent each year as allowed by law.

That ended when a Tim Eyman initiative capped new tax revenues at 1 percent per year, plus the value of new construction, without voter approval.

Eyman’s next initiative could slash all non-voter-approved property taxes by 25 percent, which Walkowski agreed would be a “huge hit” to the department’s revenues.

He agreed with the BRG that voter-approved excess levies for capital equipment would be one way to dodge the Eyman bullet.

“The board could do that,” Walkowski said. “We’ve just never done that in the past.”

“We’re not going to get ‘Fireman of the Year’ awards, that’s for sure, but these are the issues they need to discuss,” said Doug Johnson, a former fire board member who, with former fire department executive director Ken Guy, is challenging the department’s tax hike proposal.

In a presentation to the fire board last week, Johnson, Guy and Bob Fortner of the Bainbridge Resource Group – a citizen group that has been working with local agencies to examine tax issues – called on the board to re-examine its funding plans.

Among the issues raised:

l Increase too high: The fire department will ask voters in May to raise the property tax rate for fire and aid to about $1.20 per $1,000 assessed valuation, up from $1 per $1,000. That would generate base tax revenues of $4.6 million in 2005 and each year thereafter, up from $3.7 million in 2004.

Average cost to island homeowners would be $80 in additional taxes per year, to $435 per year for fire and aid services, according to the Kitsap County Assessor.

Johnson, Guy and Fortner say the increase asks too much of island property owners and runs a high risk of failure.

l “Sequestering”: The trio contends that the levy would allow the department to squirrel away millions in tax revenues over the next several years, without immediate plans to spend the money.

The department’s capital plans show purchase of several aid units and fire trucks over the next six years, while at the same time maintaining reserves of between $465,000 and $1 million every year through 2009.

The critics say the department could instead spend down those reserves, ask voters for enough money to cover basic operations, then come back with smaller capital “excess levies” for new fire trucks as needed in future years.

l Revenues not diversified: Some 95 percent of the district’s revenues come from property taxes, which are at risk from another Tim Eyman tax-slashing initiative that could appear on the statewide ballot this fall.

The three say the district should look at other, “Eyman-proof” funding avenues, including charging a fee for emergency aid responses – the largest and fastest growing segment of the fire department’s “business.” Other area fire districts charge such fees, they note, shifting the cost of non-fire emergency services away from property taxpayers.

“You need to come up with a revenue stream that’s tied to EMS,” Guy said.

Those questions may get another hearing, as the fire board holds a special meeting to discuss financing and planning at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Madison Avenue fire hall.

Jim Walkowski, fire chief, said that while the board has tentatively agreed to the 20 percent tax hike try, the ballot language has not yet been sent to the elections office and the amount could be changed.

Old pros

Unlike some critics of local government, Johnson and Guy can claim some level of expertise.

Doug Johnson served on the fire board for six years, but did not seek re-election last fall.

Guy ran the department as executive director for eight years until last summer, when his position was eliminated in a controversial organizational shakeup.

In a move backed by firefighters, fire commissioners voted to go to a “traditional” model with the fire chief running the department.

Johnson opposed the move, but was outvoted by commissioners Glen Tyrrell and James “Jim” Johnson.

Last week, Doug Johnson expressed surprise at the amount of the tax hike being sought.

This past December, his last month on the board, the hike being discussed was 15 percent, “and that was still too much,” he said.

In January, with newly elected Earl Johnson joining the three-person board, a 20 percent lid lift try was favored.

Walkowski noted that the board considered three tax hikes – 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent – and opted for the middle amount, to fund identified capital needs without having to return to the voters for more funding too soon. The department has tentative plans to ask for another lid lift in 2010.

While the department is just getting under way with a strategic planning effort that will engage citizen “stakeholders,” Walkowski said the new tax revenues would replace aging fire apparatus needed regardless of the results of the planning process.

As to assessing a fee for EMS responses, Walkowski said that idea was rejected by a focus group of island citizens last year.

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