VIFR (File photo)

Amid financial crisis, fire district brings increased levy proposal to voters

Among the decisions islanders will make when they receive their general election ballots next week is whether to increase funds for Vashon’s local fire district, raising the district’s tax revenue from $2.4 million this year to $4.4 million next year.

Commissioners at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) have not raised taxes for 27 years and are facing a budget shortfall next year of more than $1 million. To address the immediate financial crisis and plan for the future, they are asking the community to increase the tax rate from nearly 94 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to $1.50. If approved, the measure would also allow commissioners to increase the district’s revenue up to 6 percent every year for the next five years without a public vote as long as the levy rate does not exceed $1.50.

VIFR Chief Charlie Krimmert has said that such an increase — listed as Proposition 1 on the ballot — would put the cash-strapped district on a path to financial recovery. Most importantly, he said, additional funds would allow him to secure an adequate number of staff to respond to island emergencies. With volunteers at an all-time low — part of a nationwide trend — he and others in the district say it is partially a matter of luck they have been able to respond to all the emergency calls they receive.

“I’m nervous as hell everyday,” Krimmert said, describing the district’s frequent scramble to respond to emergencies. He noted that members of the district, himself and Assistant Chief Bob Larsen included, have responded to simultaneous calls and expressed pride afterward in having met the need despite being stretched thin. But pride is the wrong reaction, he said. The district is facing a crisis, and he plans to change the message accordingly.

“The reality is by the grace of God we pulled it off, and you need to know that as a community,” he said.

In addition to increasing staffing, increased tax revenue would allow the district to begin planning for the overdue replacement of ambulances and fire vehicles and start to address a backlog of maintenance.

Leading the campaign effort are members of Citizens to Rebuild Vashon Fire & Rescue Service, headed by islander Rick Wallace, a longtime leader of VashonBePrepared. The six-member group and its two dozen volunteers have developed a website and Facebook page, distributed signs and released a short video, showing in the Vashon Theatre and online, promoting the passage of Prop. 1. Representatives from the group will also be present at Wednesday’s forum focusing on the fire commissioner candidates and Prop. 1. So far, Wallace said about 220 islanders have endorsed the measure.

Some islanders, however, say they believe the proposed tax increase is too large, especially with the provision allowing for the annual increases beyond the customary 1 percent taxing districts typically receive. Community activist Hilary Emmer has noted that if passed, the provision would allow the district to bring in as much $6 million by 2023 — two and a half times the current tax revenue — and a large amount of money for an island with a cost of living that is increasingly out of reach for many.

Islander Scott Harvey, a banker and a member of the Vashon Park District board, has also expressed concerns. He believes the fire district could achieve its objectives with $1.38 per $1,000 of assessed value instead of the amount it is asking for.

“I agree that the fire district needs a lot more money,” he said. “I am just saying that the levy that is proposed should not pass. … The bottom line is like with the school district bond, if this is defeated, the fire district will come back with a reasonable request and it will be passed. Piece of cake.”

At the fire district, Krimmert has said there will be more belt-tightening next year if the measure fails, as the district contends with a $1.2 million budget deficit. Anticipated tax revenue, should the levy fail, is $2.5 million, and projected expenses are $3.7 million, with insufficient additional income or reserves to make up the difference.

This financial situation has been building for years, Krimmert has said, in part because district leaders avoided increasing taxes and repeatedly tapped reserve funds for operational needs.

“We continually steal from tomorrow,” he said. “That is why our trucks our old, why we are understaffed, why our buildings are obsolete — because we have not funded them.”

A contributing factor to next year’s budget shortfall is the transition earlier this year of the island’s paramedics from serving as VIFR employees to joining South King County Medic One. Prior to former Chief Hank Lipe’s departure last year, he said the $2 million annual contract with King County for Vashon to provide paramedic service benefitted the district with $400,000 annually for overhead. This element appears to have been lost for a time with leadership changes at both King County and at VIFR. Initially, Krimmert, who stepped into the chief’s role in January, indicated he believed that the financial impact to the district would largely be limited to the lack of partial funding for new ambulances, which the county has previously provided. Last week, however, Krimmert said that an examination of records showed that the county funds provided VIFR with between $350,000 to $580,000 annually beyond the contractual obligations. Moreover, the former island paramedics were firefighters, and the current paramedics who serve the island are not, leading the district to hire three firefighters this year. With wages, benefits, training and equipment, each costs the district about $100,000 annually, contributing to the annual cost of the paramedic change.

When he was a volunteer with VIFR, Krimmert opposed the paramedic transition, but last week he noted he has changed his mind — despite the price tag that has come with it. The paramedics are part of a large system to draw from if necessary, and they rotate through busy departments, ensuring that their skills are honed.

“I believe that the island is better served at this point,” he said.

Now, Krimmert and other district leaders are aiming to strengthen additional aspects of the district and its services. In addition to three firefighters hired this year, Krimmert has begun to implement a program to hire part-time firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) at a nominal hourly wage. Currently, there are three people in the program, and he would like to have 24 people, with four on shift daily, supplementing the career staff. This program is expected to be paid for in part by charging for hospital transports, but Krimmert said additional funds will be necessary.

The fire district works with four shifts; three are staffed with three firefighters/EMTs, and one is staffed with two. Once the firefighter most recently hired completes his training, he will join that two-person shift. To keep overtime expenses low, if one of the firefighters on a three-person shift is out, no one is called in, bringing that shift down to two as well. Volunteers often — but not always — augment the small career staff, enabling the district to field multiple calls or a fire. When volunteers are not working, a small number of people are left to deal with emergencies.

With two simultaneous calls happening four times a week and three simultaneous calls occurring approximately twice a month, Krimmert and firefighter union officials say more staff is essential. Krimmert’s goal is to have at least seven staff members, plus volunteers, available each shift. The district responds to about four calls a day; those calls may come spread out or at once. That level of staffing would enable the district to respond two simultaneous calls and still have some people be able to respond to a fire.

“How much insurance do you want on your house?” he asked, in response to a question about needed staff. “That is what we are.”

While adequate staffing is vitally important, Krimmert has said several of the district’s vehicles also need replacing. The district’s newest ambulance has more than 110,000 miles on it. And the newest fire engines are 17 years old.

Krimmert’s plan, he said, is to establish and fund three reserve accounts — for trucks, equipment and buildings — to address some of the pressing needs and plan for the future. Some islanders have expressed frustration with this approach as well, particularly when it comes to purchasing new vehicles. In this region, representatives from several fire districts say they typically acquire fire vehicles through a variety of methods: levy funds, bonds and fire benefit charges; leasing is rarely, if ever, used. Harvey said standard practice does not matter in this case, as he believes financing a vehicle, while more expensive in the long run for the district, would require less taxpayer money now — which he believes is vitally important.

“They forfeited the right to pay cash when they screwed up,” he said, referring to the commissioners, who did not act earlier to avoid this financial situation.

The owner of a $387,000 home — the median assessed value in 2017 — has paid $363 to the fire district this year. If the levy passes, the owner of a home at the median value— $452,000 in 2018 — will pay $678 to the district. If the levy fails, the owner of that home will pay the district $371.

The fire district’s request comes at a time of rising property taxes on the island in part because of the state budget, which is tapping property taxes to fund education. On Vashon, homeowners with a median-priced home are expected to pay $400 more next year for schools than they did this year and $630 more by 2021.

Looking ahead at the district, Krimmert said if the levy fails to pass, it will have serious repercussions. He was set to present two budgets Tuesday night, after press time, to the commissioners. One was for if the levy passes, the other for if the levy fails. It will be the commissioners’ task to determine the path forward in that case, weighing lay-offs, the selling of property and reducing training, among other cost-saving approaches.

Islanders will receive their ballots next week, and voting will begin. People who want to learn more about both the proposed levy and those running for commissioner seats are encouraged to attend Wednesday’s forum.

Fire Forum

The forum will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Land Trust Building. It will be shown live on Comcast 21 and on ITVoV’s YouTube channel.