Fire dept. funding options uncertain

Board debates lid lift vs. levies.

Fire department financing has become a question of “risk management.”

So said Chief Jim Walkowski in a presentation to the fire board Thursday evening. Walkowski laid out various new funding options – excess levies for new equipment, transport fees for EMS runs – to the board and firefighters.

Looming over the decision is the next Tim Eyman initiative, which would slash non-voter-approved property tax revenues for government agencies by 25 percent.

“You’re going to see some cities just go away,” said Walkowski, fresh from a briefing earlier in the day by the Association of Washington Cities. “They won’t be able to fund themselves.”

Before the fire board is the question of how to fund department operations and capital needs in coming years. A 20-percent property tax “lid lift” try has been considered, but drew criticism from the Bainbridge Resource Group, which looks at local taxation issues.

BRG members contend that the lid lift would “sequester” millions of taxpayer dollars for which the department has no immediate need.

Moving instead to voter-approved “excess levies,” they argue, would make department funding “Eyman-proof.”

Fire officials Thursday considered an array of new scenarios, including not going out for additional funding this year.

Even if Eyman’s initiative makes the ballot and passes, fire commissioner Earl Johnson said islanders would probably vote to restore any lost funding.

“I don’t see (going to the voters) as hugely threatening to this organization,” Johnson said. “I can’t see people deciding they want 25 percent less fire and aid service on the island.”

After the meeting, commissioner Glen Tyrrell said he was still undecided on which avenue the department should pursue.

One advantage of a lid lift, he said, would be that the department would not have to go back to island voters anytime soon.

“If we were successful in our 20 cent (lid lift) and Eyman was unsuccessful, we would not have to speak to the voters until 2010,” Tyrrell said. “With an excess levy, would have to be back sooner than that.

“Our philosophy is, we don’t want to burden the voters with having to make these decisions on a regular basis,” he continued. “But we also have to be sensitive to the taxes people are carrying.”

The board is expected to decide at its next meeting whether to put the lid lift on the May 18 ballot, or whether to pursue other funding options.

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