Camano fire district considering raising levy to pay for rising costs

CAMANO ISLAND — Firefighters here have plans for the next decade but say they’ll need a bigger budget.

Camano Island Fire and Rescue recently drafted a 10-year plan. The two most urgent recommendations are to keep up with increasing call volumes and replace old equipment.

Over the past four years, the number of emergency calls on the island has gone up 33 percent. Firefighters responded to a record 1,938 calls in 2015. The previous high was 1,828 in 2014. The total for 2016 is on track to make it the agency’s second busiest year, fire chief Michael Schick said Thursday.

About two-thirds of the calls are for medical emergencies. More calls mean higher costs for staff, equipment, fuel and supplies, Schick said. The remoteness of the island increases expenses.

“We don’t have a hospital here on the island, so we’re transporting to Mount Vernon, Arlington or Everett,” Schick said.

The fire district has a $5.5 million budget, more than 90 percent of it from local property taxes. State law caps the amount districts can levy at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value for fire and 50 cents per $1,000 for EMS. The total amount levied can increase no more than 1 percent each year up to those caps, unless voters approve a measure known as a levy lid lift. Revenues also can get a boost from new construction, but there’s not a lot of that on the island, Schick said.

Voters previously approved a fire levy of $1.25 per $1,000, “but we haven’t been at that level for many years,” he said. That’s due to changes in property values, which impact tax rates.

The fire levy is expected to be $1.10 per $1,000 in 2017 and the EMS levy 47 cents per $1,000, which adds up to $1.57 per $1,000 or about $471 a year on a $300,000 home. In 2015, the EMS levy was renewed at 50 cents per $1,000, but a jump in property values nudged the actual rate collected to 47 cents.

The district estimates that expenses will begin to exceed revenues in 2017. The board of fire commissioners is talking about asking taxpayers for a levy lid lift.

Voters would be asked in November to increase the fire levy to $1.35 per $1,000, keeping the EMS rate at 50 cents. That would increase taxes by about $75 a year on a $300,000 home, compared to the 2017 rate.

It should give the district enough money to add two firefighters during the busiest days, Schick said. The agency could replace equipment. One engine is out for at least a month pending repairs, and a reserve ambulance also is out of service.

“If you look at the ages on some of those, we’re lucky we have a fantastic mechanic to keep them running,” Schick said.

Emergency responders on Camano Island serve about 16,000 people over 40 square miles. There are 49 firefighters, including part-timers and volunteers. The median age on the island is 50, which is 10 to 15 years older than in surrounding communities. With so many vacation homes, the population spikes on weekends and in the summer.

“We want to make sure people are supportive before we move forward (with the levy lid lift),” he said. “If we find that they’re not for it, we’ll reassess.”

Two public meetings are planned. The first is 10 a.m. Saturday at 606 Arrowhead Road and the second is 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, at 811 N. Sunrise Boulevard.

“Hopefully we’ll get some opinions from people and we can explain what we’re doing,” Schick said.

Camano Island Fire and Rescue launched an updated newsletter to keep people informed. They can sign up online at http://camanofire.com/news/sign-up.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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