Bainbridge Island Fire Department seeks permanent EMS levy

No more half measures.

That’s the thinking behind the Bainbridge Island Fire Department’s current request to make the agency’s property tax levy for emergency medical services permanent.

Fire commissioners agreed late last year, by an unanimous vote, to put before voters a permanent EMS levy, which appears on the Feb. 12 ballot alongside a $15 million capital projects measure sought by the Bainbridge Island School District.

If approved by voters, the new permanent EMS levy will replace the department’s string of temporary requests.

Bainbridge voters last approved an EMS levy in 2009, which expires at the end of this year.

The 2009 request was based on a rate of 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, a rate which the new permanent levy will renew.

“At the time, because it was new, we asked for a temporary levy, which was for 10 years for 40 cents,” explained BIFD Fire Chief Hank Teran.

“Now what we’re doing is we’re asking to renew that levy at the same rate we did 10 years ago, with the exception of making it permanent, just like the fire [property tax] levy, so the community as well as the fire department knows that these services are here and they’re going to be provided both now and in the future.”

Fire department officials said the EMS levy is a critical part of financing operations and it can’t realistically be replaced by other sources of revenue.

The EMS levy provides 26 percent of the department’s total annual revenue, Teran said, but the number of EMS calls on Bainbridge each year actually amounts to 70 percent of the emergency calls received by the department. The total call volume the BIFD receives has increased by 35 percent since 2012.

EMS and rescue calls are such a large percentage of the island department’s purview that training has been elevated to reflect the importance, Teran said.

Also, Bainbridge is rather isolated when it comes to access to emergency medical treatment. Without a true on-island emergency room or 24/7 urgent care facility, those in need of serious attention have to be taken to Seattle or Bremerton for aid, which means quality first responders are all the more crucial.

“All of our firefighters are trained to EMT-level,” Teran said. “So in addition to paramedics we have all of our firefighters trained so that they can provide EMS services as well.”

Officials especially noted that proceeds from the levy will be used exclusively for emergency medical services, to provide responses out of all three fire stations at all times.

Should the levy fail to be renewed, Teran said, the resulting cuts will significantly impact the department.

“I couldn’t stress that enough,” Teran said. “Because it’s such a large part of our budget, if we’re not successful in 2019 then what we’ll have to do is have a reduction in services. Just being completely transparent, that’s the only way to make up that type of shortfall — to have a reduction in services.”

Exactly what such a reduction would look like is difficult to predict.

“Ultimately the board [of commissioners] would decide what that reduction would be,” Teran said. “It can be everything from the reduction of the number of units we have available to the closing of fire stations. It can be a number of things.”

State law allows fire districts to ask voters for EMS levies up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Teran noted that the Bainbridge Island Fire Department has a reputation of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars (they have, in fact, received an AA+ credit rating) and commissioners decided to only ask for the amount that was needed: 40 cents. And, if voters approve the levy, Bainbridge will still have the lowest EMS levy rate in Kitsap County.

North Kitsap Fire & Rescue currently has an EMS levy at 42 cents, followed by the Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue and Poulsbo Fire departments at 43 cents, and South Kitsap Fire & Rescue at 44 cents.

Bainbridge also has the lowest general fire property tax levy, at 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The general fire levy is $1.32 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in Central Kitsap; $1.33 in North Kitsap; $1.35 in Poulsbo; and $1.49 in South Kitsap.

Voters resoundingly approved the Bainbridge department’s EMS levy in 2009, with a 73.5 percent “yes” vote.

Because the 2019 ballot measure calls for a permanent levy, the department will need a 60 percent supermajority vote for approval.

If the levy is reset by voters during the special election, it will mean a slight rise in property taxes.

Though the 2009 EMS levy was also set at 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the actual levy rate has fallen in recent years as the tax assessed valuation of properties on the island has risen overall.

As such, the Bainbridge department’s EMS levy rate now stands at 35 cents, and is projected to fall to 32 cents in 2019.

Resetting the levy at 40 cents will mean an additional $25 in property taxes for the owner of a $500,000 home.

Additional information can be found at www.bifd.org. Specific queries can be sent to BIFD Finance Manager Ed Kaufman at ekaufman@bifd.org.

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