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Fire Dept. will seek ‘temporary’ lid lift for trucks in September

The hike would raise $2.271 million over six years to fund new apparatus.

Spurned a year ago, the Bainbridge Island Fire Department will try anew to woo voters this September, with a property tax increase proposal to fund new fire trucks and apparatus.

The department will seek approval on Sept. 20 of a “temporary lid lift” to raise $2.271 million over the next six years. At the end of that period, the department’s property tax “lid” – the maximum amount it can collect in a given year – would revert to the current level, plus the 1 percent growth allowed under state law.

Fire officials are optimistic that voters will understand the need for and look kindly on the funding request.

“We’ve really changed the way we’ve done business in the past, and it’s going to pay off,” said Jim Walkowski, Bainbridge fire chief.

The department wants to replace its fleet of aging fire vehicles, some of which went into service in 1980.

Slated for purchase are two water tenders in 2006 at a total cost of $445,783; two aid units (one each in 2007 and 2009, $244,592); one rescue unit (2007, $266,081); and two engine/pumpers (2008, $580,760).

The new apparatus would allow greater fire flow, Walkowski said, one of the agency’s operational goals.

Also sought are various command vehicles, communications equipment and minor facilities upgrades over a four-year period at a total cost of $480,000. Some $253,000 would be used to pay off the balance on the ladder truck purchased several years ago.

The district is seeking grant funding for the purchase of one new fire truck, which could shave several hundred thousand dollars off the levy, or possibly shorten the levy’s duration.

“We’re chasing (grant money) down wherever we can,” Walkowski said.

Voters last year defeated a 10 percent tax hike for fire services. The department was criticized by former fire officials and a citizen watchdog group for maintaining inflated capital reserves and seeking a permanent tax hike to pay for short-term capital purchases.

The department responded with a series of focus groups and funding forums, exploring other tax strategies and retooling its financial policies.

The department’s reserves now will be spent down to obviate the need for a tax hike for general operations until 2010 or 2011. Among the revenue streams still under discussion is a user fee for advanced life support transport; workshops on that issue are slated for this fall.

The levy hike that will go before voters in September would be about 9.1 cents per thousand dollars valuation on island properties, costing the owner of a $450,000 home about $41 per year over the six-year duration.

The revenue – $378,434 per year – would go into a dedicated fund for capital needs. The department would purchase equipment through a low-income loan program administered by the state, and use the revenues to service that debt.

Because the department is seeking a lid lift rather than a special levy, it will need only 50 percent voter approval.

It may also be the only tax issue voters see this fall, as school officials have suggested they won’t put a construction bond before voters until February 2006.

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