EMS levy just reauthorizes the same tax

It’s no coincidence the first sentence in the fact sheet Fire District 7 is mailing out this month to South Kitsap residents about the Sept. 23 Emergency Medical Services levy states: “This is not a new tax.”

The text, by the way, is bold-faced and italicized for added emphasis.

“People have to vote on so many of these ballot levies, and they’re all so confusing if you’re not working on these things every day the way we are,” said District 7 Fire Chief Mike Brown. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are going to think we’re asking for more money, but we’re not. We want to be very clear on that point.”

As the second sentence of the fact sheet notes (also in italics and bold-faced type): “It is simply a continuation of the current levy.”

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that just last November the district ran an unsuccessful fire service levy. Then in the spring, Kitsap voters were asked to approve a sales tax to fund 911 service — which came hot on the heels of a similar levy to build a new 911 dispatch center.

As Brown suggests, all of these ballot measures tend to run together in the minds of the voter — an awkward but necessary byproduct of funding emergency services of all kinds via property taxes.

For the record, here are a few pertinent facts about the EMS levy:

n Fire districts are required to ask the voters to reauthorize their levy rates every six years and the measure must pass by a 60 percent supermajority. It’s been six years since South Kitsap voters were last asked to pass an EMS levy.

n To repeat, this isn’t a new tax. Nor is the levy rate being raised. It’s simply a question of asking the voters to once again authorize a tax at the same rate they’ve been paying for the past six years to provide paramedic and EMT services.

n The money generated by this levy provides funding to maintain EMT/paramedic service and staffing at the same level South Kitsap currently enjoys. It also pays for training of personnel, maintenance and operation of the district’s eight ambulances, and helps purchase new EMS equipment and supplies.

According to Brown, Fire District 7’s paramedics respond to around 5,200 emergency calls a year. In all, the district employs 12 paramedics on three shifts, and the levy money is used to pay their salaries and benefits.

Fire District 7’s EMTs have been providing pre-hospital emergency advanced life support with its paramedic program since 1974. The district serves 72,700 citizens spread across 150 square miles, including the city of Port Orchard.

Although the district technically receives 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed valuation per property — which figures out to $50 a year for a $100,000 home — Brown points out those numbers are deceptive. Since the advent of Initiative 747 several years ago, property tax hikes are capped at 1 percent per year, which keeps levy increases below the rate of inflation. “Every year we get the same percentage of a smaller amount of money,” Brown said. “Right now, we estimate we’re only getting 44 cents from every dollar we’re collecting.”

As a result, levies are needed every few years to bring the base line back to zero and “help us keep pace with actual property appreciation,” Brown said.

Bottom line: Emergency medical services have to be paid for one way or another and property taxes are about as fair as any other method. If Fire District 7 were providing substandard service or otherwise squandering the revenue it’s currently collecting, that would be one thing. But no one has suggested that’s the case — and no one’s looking for anything more than to continue the current rate of funding.

Vote for the EMS levy as though your life depended on it — because one day it just might.

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