Fire Dept. tax hike goes up in smoke

The 10 percent increase fails to attract voters in low turnout Tuesday.

Voters appeared to defeat a property tax levy “lid lift” try by the Bainbridge Island Fire Department in a special ballot Tuesday.

Unofficial final returns Friday showed 3,646 “no” votes, or 51.2 percent, against 3,475 “yes” votes, or 48.8 percent. Voter turnout was under 50 percent, with an unknown number of stray ballots yet to be counted.

Fire officials held out hope that a late-week count of outstanding mail ballots would turn the election in their favor, but it did not gain ground on the deficit that emerged in first returns Tuesday.

Bainbridge Fire Chief Jim Walkowski said he believes it’s the first time a fire levy has failed on the island.

He called the results “deeply disappointing,” and said spirits at the fire hall were extremely low among firefighters who are “passionate” about the service.

“A ‘no’ vote to them also means a ‘no support’ vote personally,” Walkowski said. “(It’s a) gut reaction, it’s visceral. It’s going to be a morale issue for our volunteers.”

The levy would have boosted the taxes on island properties by 10 cents above the current assessment of $1 per $1,000 valuation. The new revenue would have gone largely toward purchase of new fire apparatus to replace aging trucks, officials said; it also would have funded general operations and maintenance for the next six years or beyond.

It was the department’s first lid lift try since 1993, although fire commissioners routinely increased the department’s property tax take by 6 percent per year after that, until that revenue stream was capped by a statewide initiative.

The levy campaign was unusual in that the lid lift was actively opposed by two former fire officials. Among the criticisms leveled was that the department had sufficient reserves to operate for some time without new revenue, and that alternate financing plans should be considered for large capital expenses like fire trucks.

Former fire commissioner Doug Johnson, who left the board in December, said the levy “failed on its merits.”

“I’m glad the voters had a chance to make a reasoned decision,” Johnson said. “I think they made the right decision based on what the department was trying to bring forward.

“Now we have to work together to bring something forward that will be beneficial to both the department and the island voters.”

In the only other measure to appear on a Kitsap County ballot, Central Kitsap voters resoundingly renewed a levy of 50 cents per $1,000 valuation to fund aid services in that community, giving the measure 83 percent support.

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