Opinion

Fire services trying to snuff out I-864

“Devastating.”

That would be the effect on fire districts throughout the state if Tim Eyman’s Initiative 864 should pass, say Roger Ferris of the Washington Fire Commissioners Association and Kelly Fox of the State Council of FIrefighters.

I-864, which has yet to gain the signatures that would put it on the November ballot, would reduce property tax levies for local taxing districts (cities, counties, fire, parks, library, etc.) by 25 percent of the amount that would otherwise be allowed under existing law, beginning in 2005. It would not apply to voter-approved levies, such as school or emergency medical levies.

“You never heard fire districts talk before on past initiatives,” Ferris said. “We said they might hurt us but they won’t devastate us. But we can’t overlook a 25 percent reduction because it will devastate a fire district’s fixed costs. The reason this one would hit us so severely is because, for all practical purposes, the sole financial revenue source for fire districts is the property tax. They don’t have a sales tax or other source to draw from like cities and counties do.”

Especially hard hit would be districts in urban areas that have all-paid firefighters and even those with volunteers have some paid people. “If you can afford them, it’s great,” Ferris said. “Obviously the response time is quicker. They’re right at the station ready to go. We can’t say we’re not going to pay the firefighters. We’re bound by law, mandated by collective bargaining agreements. Health care is going up 25 percent and that’s a huge issue.”

People should know, he said, with a 25 percent reduction there would have to be layoffs. “That’s not a threat, that is reality. They should know what that means for emergency medical and fires.”

As for the volunteers, there are 18,000 of them and they have to be paid, $5 to $7 a call, and reimbursed for use of their vehicles. Some districts pay for cleaning uniforms, others give an allowance per call. Disability insurance is provided and a small pension, “maximum $300 a month.”

Twenty-five percent may not sound like much, said Ferris, “but how can a district like Silverdale, with a $4 million budget, lose $1 million and still provide the same service? We all have to get that message out.”

Fox, spokesman for 6,500 paid firefighters, agreed the impact of I-864 was devastating.

“Eyman doesn’t really ever explore the consequences of these kinds of proposals,” he said. “On the surface, it sounds attractive, but most people don’t equate this with an equivalent drop in services. There is a direct correlation because fire districts rely completely and solely on the property tax. A 40-member paid fire department would probably have to lay off 10 of them.”

Are there no alternatives?

“Some cities and fire districts have explored a benefit assessment by using a different method of evaluating the value of property,” Fox said. “An employer could sit down with a bargaining unit and say either lay off 10 or reduce salaries and lay off five. That process of negotiating could take place. Or they could try to find out ways to lose people through attrition and retirement as opposed to layoffs. But there would be only 30 people delivering what 40 are needed for now.”

Another aspect is that firefighters are first responders in homeland security, he said, and a study has determined that all fire departments across the country are woefully under staffed and under equipped. “Olympia could soften the blow by reducing other services, but I’d hate to be in a situation where we start pitting police versus fire versus libraries. All have a value to their community. Part of our objective is to keep our community aware of services provided for them, what the tax base structure provides, which is probably the best insurance policy they have now.”

Eyman’s response: “Governments, including fire districts, are guilty of the same thing. They never consider the consequences of sky-rocketing property taxes on struggling family budgets. All they have to do in I-864 to justify increased spending is convince the voters of the need.”

Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA, 98340.

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