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Bainbridge fire levy driven by budget shortfall

Facing a growing budget deficit, fire officials say an EMT levy on the Nov. 3 election ballot is their only option to solve the problem.

The current Bainbridge Island Fire Department budget had its first deficit in 2008, a total of $64,000, and projects a shortfall of more than $280,000 this year. The expense fund has covered the budget deficits previously, but it will not last. The department’s 10-year plan predicts a total deficit of more than $700,000 by 2012.

“Just cutting all possible administration will not cover the cost,” said Carol Mezen, the department’s business administrator.

“Without the levy, cuts would have to come from essential personnel.”

In 2008, the total budget was $5.1 million. Of that, the cost of personnel was about $3.3 million. Salaries include 18 full-time cross-trained EMT/firefighters and paramedics, who earn up to $72,429 a year. Their salaries account for about $1.3 million of the total cost of personnel.

The remaining $2 million includes the expenses of the 42 volunteers on the roster and the equivalent of 10.3 other full-time employees, such as the fire chief and administrators. Along with actual pay, retirement benefits, life insurance and taxes are all costs of personnel.

Until now, the department has relied on help from its employee and government grants to solve its money problems. Over the past three years, the district has brought in $1 million in grants to help pay for needed equipment.

The department also shares equipment with other county departments rather than buying its own. Employees also maintain the lawns around the stations. Despite the effort to make ends meet, the cost of operations has risen far faster than the yearly 1 percent funding increase allowed by Initiative 747.

The cap on increases in funding is the main reason for the levy. The fire department cannot ask for a different amount of money each year to meet its needs. It has to ask for enough funding to last the length of the 10-year levy.

“Revenues do not rise as fast as expenses,” Mezen said. “Over the 10-year period of the levy, our average earnings have to meet our expenses.”

That means the department’s revenue must exceed expenses in the first half of the levy to offset rising costs during the second half. Any extra money generated during the first half of the levy is held in the Kitsap County Treasurer’s account.

The account undergoes regular audits and all spending must be itemized and approved by the fire board at its bi-monthly meetings.

Fire Chief Hank Teran said the levy will do more than just allow the department to hire nine new EMTs and one paramedic. It will also be used to staff Station 23 on Phelps Road in 2013 and provide medical equipment and supplies for the department.

Currently the department does not meet state and nationally recognized response-time standards because of the lack of staff. Teran said the levy will bring the department closer to meeting those standards and prevent further reductions in staff and capability.

While people he has talked to aren’t against a more prepared fire department, the chief said, some islanders feel they were not given adequate warning about the new levy.

Teran said there was no attempt to hide the issue.

“We discussed the levy twice a month at every fire board meeting and we formed an external users group to get public input,” Teran said. “It’s just something the community has not grasped onto until now.”

The final levy is currently on the department’s website. Teran said he encourages anyone interested to read it.

There are also open houses planned for October at all three fire stations. The fire department will meet with individuals or groups to help explain any questions.

“If (people) have any questions, feel free to call,” Teran said. “We are happy to sit down and explain everything.”

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