A city in King County is withholding support of a regionwide Emergency Medical Services’ levy, opposition that could jeopardize the highly regarded Medic One system if a resolution to the impasse isn’t found soon.
The six-year levy, slated to come before county voters later this year, funds the Medic One service and is considered especially critical to the Vashon fire department, which receives about half of its budget from EMS funding. But officials in Kirkland, one of nine cities in the county that has to agree to the levy before it can go on the ballot, have voiced concerns about the amount of money Kirkland taxpayers pay into the regionwide system and the way EMS is slated to run over the next six years, should the levy be approved.
As a result, Kirkland City Councilwoman Penny Sweet went before the King County Council’s Regional Policy Committee two weeks ago to voice her city’s concern and opposition. Kirkland, she told members of the county council, “feels it’s important to inform you … that unfortunately we’re not in a position to support the levy.”
In an interview Friday, Sweet stressed that Kirkland officials support the EMS system and want to see it continue. But, she added, “I wouldn’t have gone before the Regional Policy Committee if our concerns weren’t pretty significant.”
At issue, in part, is “equity” within the system, she said. The countywide levy rate — 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — costs Kirkland’s taxpayers about $1 million more than they receive from EMS. Vashon, on the other hand, is subsidized by EMS; taxpayers pay about $700,000 into the system and receive more than $2 million from the regionwide service.
Sweet said she doesn’t begrudge Vashon residents the subsidy; the island is one of several entities subsidized by EMS. But, she added, “We want something a bit more equitable than we have now.”
But Kirkland’s opposition has raised alarm on Vashon, which would be hard-pressed to fill the financial gap should the EMS system unravel.
“There’s a huge amount at stake,” said Hank Lipe, chief of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR).
Money from the EMS levy funds the salaries of Vashon’s eight paramedics, highly trained responders who can make the difference between life and death for a person suffering from a heart attack or another life-threatening emergency, Lipe said. What’s more, Vashon — because of its geographic isolation — is particularly vulnerable to any changes in the countywide system, Lipe said.
Jim Fogarty, the county’s EMS director, agreed. “There’s really a need to have a stand-alone (Medic One) unit out there on Vashon,” he said. “If the funding wasn’t there, we’d have to find another funding mechanism … or the service would have to suffer.”
Medic One is a widely hailed regional emergency response system — so good that “Sixty Minutes” once named Seattle the best place in the world to suffer from a heart attack. Premised on the idea that the first 10 minutes can make the difference in emergency response, two doctors at Harborview Medical Center and the Seattle fire chief at the time launched the system in 1970, inaugurating what was then a somewhat radical idea — that firefighters could be taught some of the same skills that doctors use to save lives, applying those skills in homes and on the streets.
Since then, Medic One has become a nationwide model, and the region continues to lead the country in response times and survival rates. According to Medic One statistics, a person who had a cardiac arrest in King County in 2011 had a 52 percent chance of survival, the highest to date anywhere in the country; nationwide, the survival rate is 10 percent.
“We’re leaders in the nation,” said County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the nine-member council.
The impasse over Kirk-land’s support of the levy unfolded during discussions over the past year, when a 19-member EMS advisory task force met to craft recommendations for the EMS levy and the strategic plan for the next six years. The current levy expires at the end of this year. Without a new levy, Medic One’s future would be uncertain.
Rex Stratton, a commissioner for the Vashon fire department, participated in the task force, as did representatives from Kirkland, Renton, Bellevue, Seattle and smaller county-based fire departments. Last month, King County published its 2014-2019 EMS strategic plan, crafted with input from the task force.
The plan calls for a continuation of the current EMS structure, funded with a 33.5-cent levy rate, which would bring in nearly $700 million over the course of the six-year levy. The task force voted 18-1 to support the recommendations in the plan; only Kirkland opposed it.
Sweet said Kirkland has several concerns, equity being only one of them. Also at issue is the city’s desire to see its fire department offer what’s called “advanced life support” or ALS emergency services — life-saving medical response provided by highly trained paramedics. Kirkland currently receives that service from Redmond, which houses the service at a hospital in Kirkland.
Sweet said Kirkland doesn’t expect to become an ALS provider immediately but wants to be “on a path to that.” But the task force didn’t go along with Kirkland’s request, she said, leaving Kirkland’s representative on the task force “beyond frustrated.”
Kirkland officials recently met with County Executive Dow Constantine and other high-placed officials in county government. Sweet said the meeting was encouraging. “I think they really listened,” she said.
Stratton said he, too, is optimistic that a solution will be found and Kirkland will endorse the levy. “I am not terribly worried. Yet,” he said.
But he’s frustrated with Kirkland’s stance and with what he called the city’s “brinksmanship”; a solution has to be found quickly for the levy to get onto the August or November ballot.
Should Kirkland pull, Stratton said, “King County will be in a world of hurt.”