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Emergency services hang in the balance with Medic One levy

A failure of the Medic One levy on this November’s ballot would leave Vashon’s fire department with a gaping hole in its budget and officials scrambling to fund emergency medical services on the island, according to department officials.

“Vashon is very precariously positioned here,” said fire commissioner Rex Stratton.

The six-year property-tax levy up for vote in Proposition 1 funds the countywide paramedic program, called the Medic One service, and is considered especially critical to Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR), which receives about half of its budget from the levy funding. Without that funding, the department would be forced to dip into its reserves to temporarily sustain its EMS program. It would likely turn to Vashon taxpayers to make up the difference, VIFR officials say, or face losing half of its paid responders.

“Our ability to respond would go down substantially,” Stratton said.

Stratton, an attorney and two-year veteran of Vashon’s fire board, has spent more than a year volunteering on the county’s EMS levy advisory task force, which crafted the renewal levy.

The group, made up of 15 mayors of cities served by the Medic One program and three fire commissioners, ultimately recommended a levy renewal rate of 33.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, slightly above the current rate of 30 cents. The slightly higher rate, Stratton said, reflects the rising costs of overhead expenses such as fuel.

“It’s not a huge increase, and it’s not building Taj Mahal,” he said. “It’s maintaining services already provided at the level already being provided.”

What’s currently provided in King County is a widely praised emergency response system — so good that “Sixty Minutes” once named Seattle the best place in the world to suffer from a heart attack.

The system was first launched in 1970 and was premised on the idea that the first 10 minutes make the difference in emergency response. Two doctors at Harborview Medical Center and the Seattle fire chief at the time inaugurated 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. Medic One was expanded in 1979 into a levy-funded program that serves all of King County.

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 in the country. This year, that number jumped to 57 percent.

On Vashon, the Medic One levy primarily funds eight paramedics, highly trained responders who handle the most serious medical emergencies, while EMTs respond to less critical cases. Vashon taxpayers, as it turns out, pay about $700,000 into the system each year and receive more than $2 million from the regional service. The other approximately $2 million in VIFR’s budget comes from a local levy.

Kirkland, a city that pays more than it receives in services, nearly pulled its participation in the program. But Kirkland officials eventually voted to put the levy on the ballot this fall if King County investigated whether it could eventually provide its own Medic One unit.

“If the vote didn’t pass, it would essentially do away with the county Medic One program, of which we are a recipient,” said VIFR Chief Hank Lipe. “There would be no funding available for advanced life support services, and that’s a fact.”

Lipe said that state law prevented him from saying anything in support or opposition of the levy, but he did say its renewal would allow the department to meet future demand on Vashon.

Vashon’s emergency call volume continues to rise, and last year VIFR responded to 1,187 fire- and medical-related calls, a record number for the island. Nearly half of the calls required paramedic intervention, according to VIFR records, and Vashon has boasted a cardiac survival rate close to that of King County.

“The program has been very successful,” Lipe said. “No matter where anyone is in King County … they’re going to receive the same trained and experienced EMS system throughout. That’s a huge statement.”

Should the levy not pass this fall, VIFR would lose Medic One funding in January, Lipe said.

The agency would turn to its robust reserve account, which could fund paramedic response for “six months if we’re lucky,” Stratton said.

King County could always try again, putting the levy back on a special ballot in February. If that didn’t work, the Vashon department would likely ask voters to pay more in local property taxes, raising the current local operating levy, a property tax levy with a rate of 90 cents per $1,000 in assessed value to a maximum of $1.50. It could also ask voters to pass an additional EMS levy of up to 50 cents per $1,000.

Even those additional funds, Stratton said, wouldn’t fully make up for the funds from Medic One. What’s more, such a would pull from property tax funds that are currently funneled to the Vashon Park District, as the fire department would take precedence under state law.

“There would be almost no money for the park district,” he said.

While the levy has strong support in King County, Stratton said supporters are still campaigning. The proposition requires a 40 percent voter turnout and a supermajority of 60 percent to pass. King County voters recently received mailings about the levy; the Washington State Firefighters Association is mounting a campaign and the Vashon firefighters’ union may do something as well.

A dozen years ago, Stratton noted, the county made little effort and the levy failed.

“We’re hopeful, but we’re not complacent,” he said.

 

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