Fire levy: think before you vote

The ballots are in the mail, and islanders now must decide the fate of a proposed 10 percent property tax hike to support local fire and aid services.

If voting on a fire levy seems somewhat novel, you are correct. Islanders have not been given the chance to weigh in on funding for local emergency services since 1993, when the fire district tendered its last “lid lift” (a proposition by which a new, higher base property tax collection is established). Following voter approval at that time, fire officials took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to finances; for most of the next decade, the fire board raised its own tax collection by 6 percent per year (regardless of inflation) to pay for personnel and new equipment – even a $700,000 ladder truck and a new fire hall at Phelps Road. With the “automatic 6 percent” spigot finally closed by statewide initiative, the district now must return to voters for

more money for general operations through 2010 or beyond and,

significantly, the purchase of some new fire trucks.

How should you vote? Beyond the relative merits of the proposal, that depends on how you would like to see the fire district conduct its financial affairs. While we won’t urge islanders to vote “no” – the need for new fire apparatus is undeniable – neither do we suggest you vote “yes” without giving that question some consideration.

Indeed, this fire levy is somewhat unusual, in that it has been vocally opposed by two prominant former fire officials. They, and a citizen watchdog group, have criticized the district for “hoarding” tax money. They’ve also challenged the department to look for new, non-property-tax revenue sources – i.e., transport fees for EMS services – and to consider issuing low-interest debt for expensive new fire apparatus (the latter strategy would spread out the cost of big-dollar purchases among future taxpayers). More significantly, following those citizens’ input, fire commissioners halved the amount of the property tax hike now before voters, which had been proposed at 20 percent.

While we can see pros and cons to the citizens’ arguments, we’re more concerned with the district’s own sense of responsiveness to voters. Levy elections are an essential check on the spending habits of local government; while they can come too frequently (the park district’s two-year cycle is unworkable), a useful example might be the Bainbridge Island School District. Every three to four years, island voters are asked to approve M&O funding for schools, and, by inference, to validate the district’s performance. When the district needs specific capital items – a school bus fleet, technology upgrades – voters again are consulted; a special levy is assessed for a few years, and then goes away.

Contrast that with a levy lid lift. Raising the fire funding lid gives the district new taxing authority – permanently – largely, in this case, for one-time truck purchases. (Each year through 2010, between 48 percent and 72 percent of the new tax revenue would go to pay off the apparatus, according to district figures.) Fire officials have vowed to keep looking for new, non-tax revenue sources throughout. But asked this week how the district might use such revenues, one fire official answered that more money would allow them to wait even longer before coming back to the voters for another lid lift. That is to say, rather than lowering the levy rate and giving taxpayers a break, they might simply forestall another supplication of voters...which brings us back to the question of regular accountability.

Fire officials variously say they fear “voter fatigue,” want to avoid high elections costs, and that the district’s organizational culture is already undergoing significant change, as refected by this shorter levy – all reasonable positions. But there is room for improvement still; a truly responsive funding philosophy might look like this:

1. Use permanent levy lid lifts only for general maintenance and operations needs, and commit by policy to coming back to the voters every four to five years for more funds as needed;

2. Use short-term special levies to pay for capital needs like fire trucks, or issue bond debt;

3. Expand the fire board from three commissioners to five, and if allowed by statute, shorten fire board terms from six years to four.

We believe these three moves would have the cumulative effect

of improving citizen oversight of fire district affairs, and ensuring

district responsiveness to the concerns of increasingly burdened island property taxpayers.

How should you vote on the fire levy lid lift? It’s easy to be wowed by the undeniable excellence of Bainbridge fire and aid in the field, the commitment of the volunteers, and simply vote “yes.” But

consider: Before a few citizens came forward to challenge the assumptions behind this levy, the fire district was about to ask for twice as much money to fund these same programs.

Give all of this some thought before you cast your vote.

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