Levy lid lift wins approval

Just in case South Kitsap residents approved a tax levy lid lift this week that would allow him to hire more firefighters, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Wayne Senter had already started the interview process months ago.

“It takes about four months, so we already started lining things up,” Senter said, explaining that since he planned ahead, he already has a list of names he can hire starting June 1.

On Tuesday, South Kitsap voters overwhelmingly approved increasing the amount of property taxes the fire district can collect by 14 cents for the next six years, an amount that will raise approximately $800,000 a year, which Senter said will be used to hire nine additional Firefighter/EMTs.

After the votes were cast, Senter gathered with levy supporters at the Puerta Vallarta restaurant on Lund Avenue, announcing just after 8 p.m. that the “yes” votes were winning comfortably with nearly 60 percent.

As of Thursday afternoon, the percentages were unchanged, with the levy still passing with 59.87 percent after 16,084 votes were cast and counted.

Although the results are still unofficial tallies, Senter said he is confident that his lead will remain.

“It’s a go — it’s such a big margin,” he said. “We only needed a simple majority, and that’s almost 10 percent.”

Although SK voters had not approved a fire district levy lid lift for the past 10 years, Senter said he had a good feeling this year’s measure would be successful.

“I had a real positive feeling that it was going to pass,” he said, explaining that even though all the feedback he got from the community in the months leading up to the vote wasn’t positive, he knew he was on the right track when some skeptics began changing their minds.

“Even some of my most conservative friends would say, after I explained the measure, ‘That’s a good issue,’” he said. “And when those folks are saying that, that means a lot.”

The new tax revenues will not technically be received by the district until next April, but Senter said he has the money available to begin paying the new staff members because of a federal grant his district qualified for last year.

The grant — known as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) — will pay a portion of each new firefighter/EMT’s salary for four years, but Senter said he asked voters for the full annual amount — $794,877 — 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 a new staff member’s salary for the first year.

Before the district could receive the grant money, it had to come up with the matching funds.

Senter said although belt-tightening and re-organization 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.”

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