People do like fire departments but they don’t like tax hikes

Eight fire and EMS tax requests are on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.

DARRINGTON — When Tim Ziesemer’s pager goes off, his wife and children say, “Bye, Dad. Be safe.”

Often, the calls take him and other volunteer firefighters to the homes of people they know. Ziesemer, a pastor at Glad Tidings Assembly of God, started volunteering for Fire District 24 more than eight months ago.

He’s training as an emergency medical technician. He has three children. He’s left two of their birthday parties to respond to 911 calls.

One of his first was for a member of his congregation. A week later, he led the man’s funeral.

Darrington’s fire district, with only three part-time paid positions, relies on more than 20 trained volunteers.

“If we can’t operate with our volunteer system, any other alternative is not fiscally possible,” Chief Dennis Fenstermaker said.

The district is asking for a fire levy increase of about 58 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, from 67 cents to $1.25 per $1,000. The increase would be about $145 a year on a $250,000 home.

Darrington also has an emergency medical services levy of 50 cents per $1,000. The combined rate would be $1.75.

The district first put the request to voters in February. It failed by 11 votes.

“You’re always going to have your naysayers,” fire Commissioner Dayn Brunner said. “It’s not that they’re against the fire department and what we do. They don’t want to pay more taxes.”

Darrington’s is one of eight fire or EMS levy measures on the Aug. 7 ballot.

State law caps the amount that fire district tax revenue can increase each year without voter approval, and districts around the county say costs have outpaced that cap.

Darrington has made cuts since February.

The district had someone at the station daily. That’s been reduced to five days a week.

“The main part of the levy request is to make sure we have at least one person staffing the station each day,” Fenstermaker said.

The part-time staff and fire commissioners took voluntary pay cuts, which saved the district about $2,000 a month.

The department has relied on grants for equipment over the years, but can’t keep up with repairs. A hovercraft and back-up ambulance are awaiting work. Levy dollars could be used for that.

Long term, Fenstermaker would like the department to be staffed full time, but “we’re years and years away from even that next step of adding sleepers,” he said.

Until then, they need to keep up, he said. The number of calls has risen from 380 in 2011 to 625 in 2017.

The increasing call volume, mostly medical emergencies, is a common thread.

West of Darrington, Fire District 21 has seen calls jump from about 600 in 2012 to 985 in 2017.

They are asking to raise the levy from 50 cents to $1.30 per $1,000 assessed property value. That’s about $280 more per year for a house worth $350,000.

The department serving rural Arlington covers an area split by the South Fork Stillaguamish River, and has one station north of the river. Earlier this year, the district bought land south of the Stilly on McElroy Road. The hope is to build another hub there to respond to calls more quickly. It now takes about 15 minutes to get around the river.

They won’t be able to build the station without a levy, Chief Chad Schmidt said. If nothing passes within the next five years, the district would have to rely more on volunteers, like Darrington.

“This is the minimum amount we could go to keep our heads above water,” Schmidt said.

Ballots were mailed last week.

Other fire districts

South County

South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue is asking for 50 cents per $1,000 assessed property value. Last year, the city of Lynnwood and Fire District 1 merged to create South County Fire. The EMS levy would increase from 37 to 50 cents per $1,000 for Lynnwood residents, and from 42 to 50 cents for those in Fire District 1.

The proposal would eliminate Fire District 1, which is obsolete after last year’s decision. This is the next step in unifying South County Fire, said Jim Kenny, chairman of the board of commissioners.

Lake Stevens

Lake Stevens Fire is asking for a fire levy increase of 27 cents per $1,000 assessed value, up to $1.50 per $1,000. The increase would be about $108 a year on a $400,000 home.

Call volumes have increased from 4,659 in 2013 to 6,126 in 2017.

If approved, the money would go toward hiring more firefighters and paramedics for the station near Frontier Village. About six of every 10 calls come from that area.

Last year, voters approved an increase to the department’s EMS levy. That’s separate from the fire levy. The department with more than 80 staff relies on both, but the fire levy “is the backbone of our funding,” Chief Kevin O’Brien said.

Mukilteo

The city of Mukilteo is asking for an EMS levy increase of 11 cents per $1,000 assessed value, up to 50 cents per $1,000. The increase would be about $50 a year on a $450,000 home.

Mukilteo Fire receives money from the city’s general fund and the EMS levy, as well as billing for ambulance trips. If the levy lift is approved, the money could cover what is currently paid from the city general fund — $169,000 in 2018. It also could be used to pay for a position focused on EMS training, to replace equipment and for injury prevention outreach, according to City Council documents.

Sultan

Fire District 5 is asking for a levy decrease. The district aims to collect $175,000 less per year. The new rate would be about 46 cents per $1,000. Someone who owns a $217,000 home would see a reduction of $54 per year.

“We are aware people took a pretty big hit in the new taxes for the school, so we’re doing the best we can to take only what we need,” Chief Merlin Halverson said.

The district responded to 1,200 calls in 2017, which was about 20 percent more than the previous year. While the district can run smoothly for now, it might need to ask for a levy increase in the future, Halverson said.

Silvana

Fire District 19 in Silvana is asking for an EMS levy increase of 7 cents per $1,000 assessed value, up to 50 cents per $1,000. The increase would be about $21 per year on a $300,000 home.

The district has seen a 30 percent increase in calls since 2011. About 80 percent of those are medical, Chief Keith Strotz said.

If approved, the money would go toward personnel, fuel, maintenance and equipment. The district has 22 firefighters and EMTs, a mix of paid positions and volunteers.

Lake Roesiger

Fire District 16 near Lake Roesiger is asking for a levy increase of 51 cents per $1,000, up to $1 per $1,000. The increase would be about $153 a year on a $300,000 home.

The money would go toward replacing equipment, paying for advanced life support medical services, recruiting and training. Lake Roesiger is a volunteer department.

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

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