Fire district plans levy for spring

South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Wayne Senter is hoping next spring will bring his district something it hasn’t had seen in more than 10 years — a successful levy lid lift.

“The last one we had was in 1994,” Senter said, explaining that the ballot measure the SKF&R’s Board of Commissioners just approved for May 16 is already different from the last three the district tried to pass in that it’s temporary.

Senter said the lid lift he will be asking voters to approve next year will be used to hire nine additional firefighter/emergency medical technicians (EMT) for six years which will cost approximately $4.8 million.

“I promise our constituents that I will not take a penny more than what is needed to pay for those nine,” he said, explaining that spread over six years, the salary costs amount to $794,877 annually.

To pay that, Senter will ask voters to approve a levy lift of up to $1.32 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Assuming the value for his district will be a total of $4 billion, he estimated the increase for a $250,000 home would be $50 per year, and $70 per year for a $350,000 home.

Although the district was approved last month to receive a federal grant — known as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) — that would pay a portion of each new firefighter/EMT’s salary for four years, Senter said he was asking voters for the full amount in case the funding falls through.

That way, he said, he can keep the new staff even if the government announces a year or two from now that the grant money is no longer available.

As long as the grant money is provided, however, Senter said he will not need and will not use the full amount of the levy increase.

The SAFER grant awards the district $100,000 each to hire nine additional firefighters, for a total of $900,000. Since the grant is paid out over four years, the grant is intended to only partially, not entirely, cover their salaries.

Since Senter estimated the average firefighter salary — when the costs of benefits, equipment and training are factored in — ranges from $60,000 to $75,000 a year, the grant will at most cover half of a new staff member’s salary for the first year.

However, before the district can receive the grant money, it must come up with the matching funds.

Senter said although belt-tightening and reorganization over the past year allowed his district to add much-needed staff, he still needs to hire nine additional firefighters/EMTs to maintain “reasonable response times.”

“We have the lowest response times of any similar-sized fire district,” Senter said, explaining that if more staff is not hired, the response times will continue to increase as the population grows.

“Ninety percent of the time, our response time is between nine and 10 minutes,” Deputy Chief Dan Olsen said. “That is too long ... and poses a fairly high risk to our citizens. The science is very strong in this area, and it shows that for both fire and medical calls, we definitely need to be there within the six-minute realm.”

Earlier this year, Former Deputy Chief Gary Faucett they only way the district will be able to greatly improve response times is by hiring more emergency responders.

An ambulance or fire truck is not going to get to a home more than a minute or so faster than your average driver without breaking the laws of physics or driving faster than safety allows, he said, so “the only thing that will change the times significantly is more people.”

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