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Fire board halves May levy request

The district will ask voters to support a 10 percent tax hike.

Responding to criticism from former fire officials, the Bainbridge Island Fire Department board of commissioners this week halved the tax increase it will seek on the May 18 ballot.

Voters will be asked to approve a property tax “lid lift” of some 10 percent, raising the district’s take to $4.278 million in 2005 including tax revenues from new construction, up from $3.761 million this year, fire commissioners decided Wednesday.

The base property tax would be set at that level, increasing each year by 1 percent plus the tax value of new construction.

“We’re looking forward to getting out in the community to let folks know what we can do with this,” said Glen Tyrrell, fire commissioner. “We want to continue to provide the quality of service the citizens have come to appreciate, and we can do that with this levy amount.”

The fire board had been considering a 20 percent tax hike, a plan criticized by former fire commissioner Doug Johnson, former fire district director Ken Guy, and members of the Bainbridge Resource Group, which studies tax issues.

“I don’t think it’s going to pass,” Johnson told fire commissioners at a special meeting on the levy Tuesday evening at the Madison Avenue fire hall. “There’s a real gut feeling against 20 percent, from the people I’ve been talking to.”

He and Guy urged the district to scale back its spending assumptions in future years, and to consider charging a fee for “advanced life support” transports like those imposed by other area fire districts.

The new revenue would support EMS operations, the bulk of the department’s business, they said.

Johnson argued that a 5 percent tax increase would suit the department’s needs, particularly if it spends down reserves somewhat.

“It’s not like all of a sudden, you’re going to be on a lean, mean diet,” he said. “You’ve got plenty of excess cash there.”

Pared back

The call for transport fees was not warmly embraced; fire commissioner Earl Johnson said that the department couldn’t start “dinging” people with new fees without public input.

Nevertheless, by the time the board reconvened the following evening, Fire Chief Jim Walkowski and department staff had retooled their assumptions, cutting projected spending on minor capital needs, health care costs and various contingencies. They also assumed higher tax revenue from new island construction.

The staff proposed a 12 cents per thousand increase; Tyrrell proposed lowering that to 10 cents per thousand, to which other fire commissioners agreed.

The lower levy amount, Walkowski said Friday, would still allow purchase of new fire apparatus called for in the district’s capital plan, and the hiring of three new paramedics in 2008.

The district would go back to the voters for another lid lift in 2009, a year earlier than planned.

Earl Johnson said that five-year window was “just about right,” saying the challenge for the department was “to create stable funding within a reasonable planning window.”

Agreed Tyrrell: “My objective is to not go too often to the voters, but to make the (tax) impact reasonable and show that we have good fiscal discipline.”

District officials did agree to give further consideration to transport fees, which Walkowski said have been on the table for years.

“It was a very useful exercise for us,” Walkowski said of the budget meetings. “We got to dig in deeper into our numbers, and look at past assumptions.”

Fire officials said a levy campaign will begin soon, with promotional fliers and speaking appearances before community groups.

If approved by voters, the tax increase – a projected levy rate of $1.10 per $1,000 valuation, up from the current $1 – would cost the owner of the “typical” $362,000 island home about $36 more per year in property taxes, $391 per year total for fire and aid services, according to figures provided by the Kitsap Assessor’s Office.

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