COMMENTARY: The Vashon fire department needs our help now

  • Tuesday, August 8, 2017 9:23am
  • Opinion

Melinda Powers (Marla Smith Photo)

I have been glued to the Vashon Island Fire &Rescue (VIFR) crisis over the last couple months and have devoted a good amount of time to learning and understanding the facts. I have gone through the department’s budget with a fine-toothed comb and have read the abundance of material Chief Charlie Krimmert has personally written to describe all the issues and what is at stake: This includes budget, personnel issues, emergency responder staffing, aging equipment and buildings.

I discovered that VIFR is in a serious financial crisis. To operate our fire and rescue service, it costs about $3.7 million per year, but tax revenue only brings in $2.5 million — an operational shortfall of $1.2 million. The department does not have the revenue to meet its budget and staffing needs this year and is eating into its meager reserves to keep going. By mid-year 2018, the annual shortfall will consume all remaining reserves.

Nearly all the department’s first-line fire engines and ambulances are at or near the end of their lives, and some engines are completely out of service. There are not enough emergency responders to properly meet the island’s current demands because emergency calls have risen nearly 270 percent in the last 26 years.

Why did the elected board of commissioners allow this to happen? It seems there has been a lack of foresight in the past to envision what the department has needed and therefore inaction in addressing and raising taxes — the department’s main source of funding. As far as I can tell, simply no one wanted to take on the funding picture either by doing the required work or being the “bad guy” in asking the public for what the department has desperately needed over the last 26 years — more tax revenue to adequately meet the needs of the Vashon community and plan for the future.

To the current commissioners’ credit, they have all stepped up to address these issues and support making a change. They are taking responsibility and I respect that. They voted unanimously to raise the tax levy from 93 cents to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed home value. For the median assessed home value on Vashon of $452,000, that amounts to about 71 cents a day. In my opinion, we can’t afford not to invest this back into our fire department.

I think very highly of our new chief. Chief Krimmert has done a masterful job of transparently laying out the facts for everyone to see. This was no small task and has required a sharp mind and many hours of analysis to spell out the situation in a way citizens can understand in order to make sound decisions.

Yes, I am interested in what happened during the last two decades to land us in this position, but I am more interested in how we are going to solve it moving forward. The most important element is in place: a new chief who is wise, hardworking and a visionary. It takes guts to jump right into this controversy, and he met it head-on. With our help to provide essential revenue, I trust him to lead the department to a successful outcome.

I am a business owner and my in-depth assessment is that the district is efficiently run — there is nothing frivolous, careless or wasteful in their operations that I could find. This crisis is simply a failure to provide enough funding to cover the cost of steadily increasing demands over the last 26 years. It is not new. This has been building for decades.

The department is not only our fire protection service, but more importantly, our only emergency room. Eighty percent of the calls VIFR receives are for medical emergencies, not fires. Our resurrected health clinic provides only daytime primary care service.

I feel this crisis personally. You may not have had a medical emergency yet. You may never have had a fire in your home. You may never have had someone you love need to be pulled out of a terrible car accident. I have. In the 19 years I have lived on the island, VIFR emergency personnel have responded to more than 30 calls regarding medical emergencies for my family, friends and customers, including two fires. They are my heroes, and I am here to support them.

If we are to continue to be able to rely upon them for our emergency needs, we must vote in November to restore the tax rate in order to keep VIFR operating at the level our community needs. I trust our investment will right the course now and for the future. I ask you to join me in my support.

— Melinda Powers is a longtime islander and owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant.

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