Bainbridge commissioners again push back proposed levy to staff Station 23

On a narrow 3-2 vote, Bainbridge Island fire commissioners rejected a proposal for a levy increase on the November ballot that would pay for full-time staffing at the fire department's only unmanned fire hall.

The setback is the latest for the levy proposal to put full-time firefighters at Station 23, the department's north end station on Phelps Road NE. Commissioners voted earlier this year to set the levy proposal aside so department officials could focus instead on a bond measure that would pay for new and improved fire stations.

Fire commissioners decided Thursday to delay both proposals until the February ballot, so Bainbridge voters could decide on a package deal on fire department staffing and facilities.

Commissioners were briefed on five options for staffing at Station 23 at their meeting this week, and Fire Chief Hank Teran told the fire board the timing was never better for a levy increase.

Teran asked the board to put before voters a levy increase of 22 cents (per $1,000 of assessed property value) that would help pay for nine new firefighters.

The tax increase would cover expanded staffing at Station 23 — with three new firefighters for each shift — which would allow firefighters at the north end station to cover calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Phelps Road fire hall is the only of the department’s three stations that isn’t staffed around the clock.

Assistant Chief Luke Carpenter told commissioners that the increase in staffing would lead to a 52-percent increase in 5-minute response times.

Officials noted that having firefighters and EMTs on the scene in five minutes is a department goal, and is critical when the department responds to reports of heart attacks or structure fires.

In incidents of cardiac arrest, brain death can occur within 4 to 6 minutes, said Assistant Chief Jared Moravec. And at structure fires, "flashover" — the point where a room can be consumed by flames from ceiling to floor — can happen within 5 to 10 minutes of the start of a fire.

With Station 23 unmanned, firefighters must respond to north island calls from the department's two stations to the south. That means a longer response time, Moravec noted.

"We can only go so far, so fast ... if we don't have bodies in the station," he said.

Chief Teran also said that 30 percent of the department's emergency calls come while firefighters are already responding to another call. And when emergency responders have to transport someone to the hospital, to Seattle or Bremerton, they are unavailable to respond to other calls for as long as two hours.

"I wouldn't be here asking if we didn't need it," Teran told the board.

"We need the people," he said.

Divisions among commissioners over the levy — which date back to the start of this year when a new majority joined the fire board — resurfaced at this week's meeting.

Commissioner Teri Dettmer said she supported full-time staffing at Station 23, but said the department should focus first on the bond measure to pay for improved facilities.

"I feel like this isn't the right time to go out for a levy increase," Dettmer said.

Dettmer added that the department has said little about the levy, and contrasted that with the multiple public meetings and news coverage on the department's talk about new fire facilities.

Teran, however, noted that discussions on the levy increase have been going on since last year.

Previous fire commissioners passed a resolution in 2013 that said the department would ask voters to approve a levy increase this year to help pay for increased staffing at Station 23.

"This is not something we've kept secret," Teran said.

He added that the time was right to put the proposal on the ballot.

"That's all I'm asking for: Let the public decide," he said. "We owe it to the public to let them decide if they want the station staffed or not."

Teran also said that if voters reject the increase, then the fire department could show voters that the fire department is responsive to residents' concerns by paring back the bond facilities proposal by removing planned improvements at Station 23.

Commissioner Dan Morrow said he was comfortable removing those improvements from the bond proposal anyway.

"I'd take the $1.2 million off the table right now," Morrow said of the Station 23 improvement project.

Board Chairman Scott Isenman reminded his fellow commissioners that north island residents are currently paying the same for fire protection as other residents who get quicker service.

"We owe it to the community to provide that level of service," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do."

Commissioner Eileen McSherry pressed her fellow board members to delay the levy request until February so it could be paired with the proposal for new fire facilities.

That approach was more "honest," she said, than a piecemeal approach that could be confusing to voters.

Isenman then asked commissioners to move forward with a November levy measure, but his request was defeated on a 3-2 vote with Dettmer, McSherry and Morrow voting no.

Commissioners said they would resume talk about a potential levy sometime in the months ahead.

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