When we look at the Orcas Fire Levy, it comes down to the numbers.
This election has been muddied by public questions about the department’s spending on food and hotel stays. We think OIFR administration needs to be more aware of “indulgent” spending – such as food flown to the island even if the cost to fly in those meals was only $70. We do think that money spent on responsible feeding or housing staff and volunteers is a necessary cost.
Without the volunteer members, it would cost the department an additional $5.7 million more per year. So while flying in food from Bellingham is certainly an unnecessary extravagance, we don’t deny that our volunteers should get perks like meal stipends.
The car accident involving firefighter and mechanic Jack Delisle was another blemish on the department this year. Could it have been handled better? Definitely. Did administration learn from the incident? We hope so. But we feel this does not have any effect on how money is spent and is a separate issue from the levy.
So back to the numbers.
OIFR is currently funded by a levy lid lift that was approved by voters in 1998 with a rate per thousand of $1.35. It expires at the end of 2014 and is the primary source of funding for OIFR (99 percent).
In its final year, the levy will generate $2,042,599 with a rate of $1.0513 per thousand dollars of assessed value.
The proposed EMS/Fire levy is $1.05 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. This is slightly below the current millage rate and it will not raise taxes for property owners. If approved, the levy will run for 10 years beginning Jan. 1, 2015.
Opponents have argued that the original levy was for building new stations and equipment, so why wouldn’t it be much lower now?
Well, those seven fire stations and 24 pieces of rolling stock need to be maintained, the cost of living has increased significantly, state-mandated training requirements have gone up and the number of calls has increased by 119 percent since 1999.
This levy is proposed to maintain the current levels of service. It will allow the department to maintain or replace as needed its current vehicles and does not call for any expansion or new buildings.
Chief Kevin O’Brien has outlined an extensive 10-year projection that takes into account cost of living and call volume increases. We think this kind of thorough planning shows foresight and care, but we also want to clarify that it is just a projection. It is not an approved budget that gives the chief and other staff members increased salaries. It is simply an estimate; any budget needs to be approved by the fire commissioners. And if the last few years are any indication, the commissioners are fiscally conservative. Contrary to what opponents have said, the chief’s salary is comparable to Lopez and San Juan Island.
San Juan County has one of the lowest property taxes in the state, yet our quality of life is exceptional. We think paying $1.05 per thousand of property value is a reasonable cost for a fire department that covers a broad geographic area.