Fire commissioners decide on tax increase for November election

Over the course of two meetings last week, Vashon’s fire commissioners unanimously approved a levy rate increase to the maximum allowable amount for the November ballot.

At the Tuesday night meeting, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert recommended that the board support a levy rate increase to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed home value — 57 cents above the current levy rate. This increase would bring in $4.5 million next year, about $780,000 more than the forecasted budget. The commissioners also approved a provision that would enable them to increase the district’s revenue up to 6 percent every year for six years, but at no time could the levy rate exceed $1.50. Typically, levy rates decline as assessed home values rise, and supporters of the provision say it would allow the district to provide small increases to the revenue stream — and thus the levy rate — without the need for additional public votes. After further conversation at the meeting, some members of the five-member board indicated they may rescind their vote and opt for a lower levy rate. On Friday, at the final meeting on the matter, however, the board members held to their initial decision, making the $1.50 rate and additional provision final in time for the Aug. 1 election filing deadline.

Following the meeting, Krimmert indicated he was pleased — and looking ahead.

“I am excited about the opportunity to better inform the community and to better engage the district in the community,” he said.

The district has not raised taxes in 26 years and is expected to face a deficit of $1.2 million next year, while contending with insufficient staffing, aging vehicles and a backlog of deferred maintenance at its facilities, along with a nearly depleted financial reserve.

In making his request to the commissioners, which was for an increase to $1.50 without the extra provision they approved, Krimmert stripped down the district’s financial challenges to the basics.

“The costs of the services we provide are more than the revenues we take in. We are about to run out of money,” he said.

This has been the case for years, he added, but previously, the district had paid for the shortfalls from prior years’ savings.

“We no longer have that luxury. The gap has approached $1 million annually, and our savings are not large enough to sustain us,” he said.

A small number of island residents attended last week’s meetings, and some expressed concerns about increasing taxes substantially, particularly given the state budget, which will raise property taxes next year to fund education. Projections are that for education, islanders with homes at the median assessed value of $450,000 will pay $400 more in taxes. But board members ultimately determined the needs of the fire district are too great to request a lower rate, with each voicing support for the increase. David Hoffman, a commissioner for more than a decade, noted that he has always previously been against raising taxes, but he believes it is important to do so now.

“We have been pinching pennies for a long time, and we are out of pennies to pinch,” he said. “We are asking for some help. … I support the $1.50.”

If the levy is approved, islanders with that $450,000 home will pay $258 more next year than they are now to support the fire district. Some commissioners indicated that a reduction to a rate of $1.44 — the lowest rate Krimmert believes necessary to meet district needs — would provide little benefit to taxpayers’ wallets, and would significantly slow the district’s recovery.

Several islanders have asked how the district got to a point of financial crisis, including Joe Ulatoski, who attended the meetings last week.

“The question that is being raised to me, almost like a drum beat, is how in the hell did we get to a crisis position. I think at some point you are going to have to answer that question if you want this levy to get by,” he said to the commissioners. “That question is going to come up, and it’s going to come up, and it’s going to come up.”

Board members pointed to a variety of factors that brought the district to this place, including believing they were being considerate of the public in not previously asking for a tax increase. Additionally, several matters in recent years factored in. They included launching an effort to update the district’s strategic plan, which was truncated by the prolonged question of whether or not the district’s paramedics would remain on Vashon or join South King County Medic One. A change in leadership was also involved, as the former chief and assistant chief left the district in 2016.

In his office last Friday, Krimmert, who stepped into his position in January after 16 years as a volunteer with the district, also addressed the issue.

“It is not that we have been irresponsible in our spending. We have been irresponsible in our savings and planning,” he said.

Previously, Krimmert has noted that when he began as chief there was no finanical long range plan in place and no dedicated reserves for capital expenses, such as new vehicles and equipment. In recent months, he has established three new capital accounts and is working to create plans for new vehicle purchases so those can be spread out and prepared for. But he cautioned that the potential revenue increase will not be entirely sufficient; rather it will put the district on a path to where he wants it — with adequate reserves and the ability to maintain consistent staffing levels. He added that while sufficient funds to plan for new vehicles is important, ensuring adequate staffing levels is critical. With staffing needs met, he added, the district will be better able to respond to multiple medical emergencies and have a greater capacity to fight fires.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Vashon Park District Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford said she has increased concerns about what the $1.50 rate might mean for the park district. In Washington, the combined total of taxing districts’ levy rates cannot exceed $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value, or reductions in revenue will be implemented. On Vashon, those reductions would begin with the park district. A few weeks ago, Ott-Rocheford expressed a fair amount of confidence that the park district’s revenue would not be affected by the fire district’s decision. However, for review, she recently sent her financial projections to Hazel Gantz, an expert in the assessor’s office, and said that Gantz’ response made her concerns rise. According to Ott-Rocheford, Gantz stated it is likely that in 2018, a fire district increase to $1.50 likely would not hurt the park district, but that beyond 2018, potential effects on the park district are not possible to predict.

Ott-Rocheford stressed she wants to see the fire district receive more money, but she is concerned about the $1.50 rate.

Meanwhile, fire district officials have created a group to help run the election campaign: Citizens to Rebuild Vashon Fire & Rescue Service. Rick Wallace, who had a 20-year career in the communications field, is heading the effort; he has worked closely with the fire district for years and is currently the vice president of VashonBePrepared and is the head of Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center team. Last summer, he led another island effort — the fundraising campaign to bring Neighborcare Health to the island.

Over the weekend, Wallace said the group is just getting started, but soon islanders will see the results of their work, as they have plans to develop a website and Facebook page where they answer common questions and will field others. The goal, he said, is for complete transparency.

Wallace originally had plans to walk across Kansas this fall, but shelved those to lead the campaign to pass the levy.

“I was inspired by Chief Krimmert and Chief Larsen and their looking at this situation in a way that has not been looked at for years,” he said. “The need to rebuild Vashon Island Fire & Rescue services is urgent. It is a crisis. How could I do less?”

In the coming weeks and months, islanders will determine how best to move ahead and cast their votes when ballots for the November election are mailed in October.

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