Fire levy raises tough questions

When does “enough” become “too much”?

That question informs the decision-making each time a property tax measure goes before voters.

Earlier this month, islanders could not be rallied in sufficient number to approve an 8 percent per year hike in the park district’s tax receipts; park officials are considering new revenue streams and cutbacks as they plan a second levy attempt. And come May, those same voters will decide the Bainbridge Island Fire Department’s proposed levy “lid lift” – raising the base property taxes collected by the department – a tax hike of fully 20 percent per year, to fund operations and new equipment purchases through 2010.

As reported elsewhere in today’s issue, two former fire officials and a citizen activist group have stepped forward to challenge the department’s tax proposal. They concede they don’t have all the answers, and their answers may not be the right ones; at the same time, Doug Johnson and Ken Guy know more about the issues facing the fire district than anyone outside the department – they were on the inside. Their comments are worth considering today, before the levy is upon us. Some thoughts:

1. Given that an overwhelming percentage of the BIFD’s calls are for medical emergencies, not fires, why not impose a transport fee to generate a matching revenue stream? Such fees are routinely imposed by other departments. Fire chief Jim Walkowski counters that such a move could actually increase department costs; if so, the reasons need to be

articulated to those who see the intuitive appeal of user fees.

2. Should the department purchase new fire trucks by

issuing bond debt, to spread costs to future island residents? Or as an alternative, mightn’t the department go back to the voters for supplemental “excess levy” funding whenever new apparatus is called for? We suspect an occasional “fire truck levy” would be an easy sell with voters, and would have the added advantage of not taxing residents today for equipment the department doesn’t plan to purchase until three, four or five years down the road. Why the insistence on hoarding tax money for future big-ticket equipment purchases?

3. Should the department conduct its long-range planning and then decide how much money it needs, rather than asking for more money first and then planning how to spend it? Walkowski counters that new fire apparatus is needed regardless of the outcome of planning; that may be so, but planning may also bring forth new funding philosophies, like EMS transport fees and separate levies for capital needs.

4. A 20 percent property tax hike? Has this really been thought through?

We all count on effective fire protection and emergency response, and the Bainbridge community has long honored the service of our career firefighters and many volunteers. Questioning the wisdom of the fire/EMS levy property tax lid lift in no way diminishes their commitment and excellence.

At the same time, any taxing agency that in the current

economic climate asks for 20 percent more tax revenue – not just next year, but in perpetuity – should be ready to give an account of itself before the levy election. Let’s hear it.

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