Fire Dept. considers fall levy for trucks

Commissioners may ask voters to approve $1.8 million for new apparatus.

Left reeling by a tax hike defeat a year ago, the Bainbridge Island Fire Department may climb off the ropes this fall with a new levy request to fund trucks and equipment.

Fire officials are considering a six-year, $1.8 million levy to pay for nine new pieces of fire apparatus and seven support vehicles, but no general operations needs. A September or November ballot measure appears likely.

“We have learned a lot from our last failure,” Fire Chief Jim Walkowski said. “We have learned a lot from our taxpayers and our citizens and taken that to heart. We’re doing everything in our power to make changes to be sure we’re successful next time out.”

Last May, the department floated a levy “lid lift” that would have permanently hiked its property taxing authority by 10 percent over the current level. Officials said the new revenue would allow replacement of aging fire trucks – some of which date back to 1980 – and cover the rising cost of operations.

But the hike was opposed by former fire officials and a citizen watchdog group, who said the district didn’t need the money and already held too much cash in reserve.

Voters agreed, and the lid lift earned just 48 percent support – the first Bainbridge tax hike in more than a decade to fall short of even a simple majority.

Fire officials regrouped, holding focus groups to discuss department finances. Based on input from those meetings, Walkowski said, the agency has retooled its financial assumptions and policies.

The department reserve fund is being reduced to $300,000, freeing up several hundred thousand dollars in cash for other purposes. By policy, budgeting for operations costs will be more conservative, with no levy lid lift for general operations expected before 2010.

For any equipment needs under $100,000, Walkowski said, the department will no longer ask the voters for funding, but will instead save its pennies and pay out of current revenues.

The most dramatic change is that capital needs will be funded by a dedicated, short-term levy, rather than permanent lid lifts. Fortuitously for the department, Walkowski said, the focus groups suggested support for the new equipment purchases under that strategy.

“Nobody argued that we didn’t need (the equipment),” he said. “It was how we paid for it.”

The levy under consideration would fund two new fire engines with suppression apparatus, two water tenders, and a rescue unit that carries extrication equipment and tools. Four current medical aid units would have their “boxes” refitted atop new vehicle chassis. Seven non-response vehicles in the department’s motor pool would be replaced, and new communications gear purchased.

The department has applied for a grant to fund one of the new fire engines, which could lower the levy amount by $250,000, Walkowski said.

Purchases would be spread over six years; the tax impact on the owner of a $400,000 home would be about $34 each year for the levy’s duration.

The levy will be discussed at a special board meeting slated for 4 p.m. today at the Madison Avenue fire hall.

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Editor's clarification: In this story, the proposed special levy for new fire apparatus put the likely levy amount at $1.8 million over six years. That figure is contingent on the department securing grant funding of approximately $400,000 for one new fire truck. Without the grant funding, the levy amount is likely to be $2.2 million, fire officials say.

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