At the most recent fire board meeting late last month, the five commissioners unanimously passed a nearly $5.4 million budget for 2019, a 3 percent increase over last year’s spending plan.
Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) officials say additional funds next year will enable the district to cover a range of higher expenses, purchase a fire engine and fund reserve accounts for future needs.
Next year’s budget is the second since islanders voted to increase taxes for the fire department late last year. That vote also allowed the district to increase its tax revenue up to 6 percent every year for the next five years, instead of the 1 percent taxing districts typically receive. Fire officials made full use of that option and are expecting to receive approximately $4.7 million in tax revenue next year, up from nearly $4.4 million this year. A 1 percent increase would have brought in about $40,000 in additional funds next year, Chief Charlie Krimmert said, instead of the nearly $300,000 more the district will receive from the 6 percent boost.
Before islanders voted on the levy, critics warned that the provision to allow the additional revenue could be costly for island taxpayers, enabling the district to more than double its tax revenue by 2023. Late last week, however, Krimmert said he believes that an accelerated financial recovery for the district is important for both current and future operations.
“It was the most logical decision,” he said about using the full 6 percent of revenue available. “I appreciate the pain. I am a taxpayer too. But for the safety of the island, I have to take these steps.”
Chair Brigitte Schran Brown was not available before press time, but Vice Chair Candy McCullough said she believes Krimmert’s budget is sound.
“It makes sense to get ourselves in a situation so we are not seeing ourselves fall down again,” she said, referencing the district’s financial difficulties prior to the levy vote.
This year, islanders paid $1.50 per $1,000 of their assessed property value to support the fire district. Next year, the rate will drop to $1.43. Currently, 12 percent of islanders’ taxes go to the fire district, up from 8 percent before the levy increase, Krimmert said.
VIFR’s budget includes several increased expenses next year, including for personnel, which accounts for nearly 75 percent of the budget. The district added more staff last year and this year, both full and part time, so that typically there are five firefighters/emergency medical technicians on duty, instead of just two, as there often were last year after Krimmert stepped into the chief’s position in January.
For 2019, increased costs associated with personnel include a 3.4 percent, or $40,000, cost of living adjustment for union staff, $80,000 more in payroll taxes for those firefighters/emergency medical technicians and more than $150,000, including salary, taxes and benefits, for a new training specialist.
Krimmert said the new position is an important one, as training, ranging from hose handling to water rescues to incident command, is vitally important to the district’s crews.
“If you do not do something a lot, it is really easy for the skill to atrophy,” he said.
The training specialist is also a firefighter and responds as such in emergencies, Krimmert said, helping bolster the district’s response capabilities.
Additionally, the district has begun offering two fire training academies each year, training firefighters from other districts, who pay to attend, as well as those interested in volunteering on the island. VIFR benefits from those academies in several ways, Krimmert said, including that typically a few people go through to volunteer on Vashon in each academy.
The fire department is also planning for a variety of increased expenses in other areas. Krimmert has allocated $35,000 for new ladders for the engines, for example, and $10,000 for rechargeable batteries for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), which crew members wear into and around fires. Also, Krimmert budgeted $35,000 to build an improved search and rescue facility to replace the current structure, which is in poor condition and is important for training.
The budget also reflects financial planning for the future. Krimmert, who noted that it takes about $350,000 to operate the fire district per month, said he would like to build the reserve accounts so that there is $1 million — or three months’ worth of money — in operational reserves. Next year, he plans to divide $1 million among several reserve funds: $350,000 into the operational reserve; $450,000 into the fleet reserve, which will cover the new engine due to the district in April; $100,000 in the facilities reserve and $150,000 in the equipment reserve.
Vice Chair McCullough said she believes it will take two to three years for the district to be back on firm financial footing. She added that fire district officials receive comments about a range of perspectives regarding how they should allocate their funds.
“We get pressure from both sides — people who want us to hire more career people, and those who want us to keep taxes as low as possible,” she said.
She also said there is currently no financial policy in place regarding the district’s reserves, but said she hopes the commissioners will create such a policy this spring as part of a longer-term planning process that includes attention to both staffing and finances.
“I think we need that,” she said.
This version corrects when there sometimes just two firefighters on shift; it was last year, after the King County transition with the paramedics took place in February, not January, as the story previously indicated.