Bainbridge fire board split over ballot possibilities

A split over what to put on the ballot, and when, has divided commissioners for the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.

At the board’s meeting last week, commissioners struggled with lingering questions over the fire department’s next tax levy request, and whether to pair that ballot measure with a possible bond that would pay for a new fire hall.

Bainbridge fire officials have been looking into the possibility of building a joint facility with the Bainbridge Island Police Department, and have hired a consultant firm to examine the problems with the police department’s aging building on Winslow Way and the fire department’s undersized headquarters at Station 21 on Madison Avenue.

Though fire commissioners had passed a resolution last year that said the department would ask voters to approve a levy increase in 2014 to help pay for increased staffing at Station 23, a new majority joined the board after the November election.

At the commissioners’ first meeting in March, commissioners voted 3-1 to rescind the resolution, saying more information was needed before officials could move forward with putting a levy proposal on the ballot.

At last week’s meeting, Commissioner Teri Dettmer detailed exactly what information was needed.

It was a long list.

Dettmer asked for more of the detail and analysis that went into the department’s strategic plan, including budget considerations that would be prompted by a Station 23 staffing increase, plus alternatives.

“What I need in my brain is more information on how we got there,” she said.

She said she also wanted to know about the public input that was received and the depth of support that was apparent, plus news articles about the 2009 levy, information about the proposal from the voters’ guide, 2009 budget projections and information on the decline in property assessments.

“I just need that information for myself as background before determining our moving forward,” she said.

Dettmer said she also wanted more information on maps that were presented earlier, including response times for the stations and populations of the areas served.

Dettmer also requested any information the department had regarding adverse outcomes that have occurred in Station 23’s service area, or other services areas, due to delayed response times.

She also asked for comparables with other departments.

“The original strategic plan had a breakdown that compared Bainbridge Island with other departments in the county regarding the number of paid responders and the number of calls per year to that department. But it’s pretty out of date,” she said.

Finally, she also asked for alternatives for staffing Station 23 that could be done without a levy increase.

Chief Hank Teran said gathering the information would take some time, and the topic turned to priorities.

Station 23 is the only of the department’s three stations that isn’t staffed around the clock. And late last year, the previous board said it supported a levy measure this year that would have put firefighters at Station 23 for 50 percent of the time, with full staffing the ultimate goal.

More recent talk has been on a new fire station, however, and a possible bond measure in November.

Fire Commissioner YongSuk Cho said the staffing issue was a higher priority than a new facility.

But Commissioner Eileen McSherry said the architect’s report made it clear that Station 21 has safety issues.

“We had to act on that,” she said.

“It’s so clear that we are working in unsafe buildings. We have our emergency center here in a building that could collapse very easily,” McSherry said.

Board Chairman Scott Isenman agreed.

“It would be the equivalent of dereliction of duty on our part to ignore the fact that we’ve got this information and choose not to act on it,” Isenman said.

Cho said he’d get behind putting both the levy and bond proposals on the November ballot.

“I would like to see both the levy and the building going at the same time in November,” Cho said.

Earthquakes are unpredictable, he added. Other things, not.

“The danger to citizens and responders are greater if we don’t staff Station 23, compared to an earthquake,” he said. “It can hit tomorrow, it can hit 100 years from now. That’s something that we don’t know.”

Isenman said he agreed that both measures should be on the same ballot.

“I don’t want to put it off for another year,” he said.

The department has a $7.5 million budget. It last went to voters in 2009 for an EMS levy; it passed, like almost everything the department has ever put on the ballot.

The Bainbridge department’s near perfect success at the ballot box stretches back to 1958.

In that time span, only one ballot measure out of nine — a levy proposal in May 2004 — has been rejected by Bainbridge voters.

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