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It’s Time to Vote!

The November 7th ballot arrived in the mail a week ago. If you haven’t voted yet, I hope you will consider this article and vote now. Why? Because your vote is about your own physical safety.

Proposition 1 on the ballot asks us to vote to restore the property tax levy set in 1990 that supports Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR). That rate was $1.50 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. Since then, that rate has declined to 93 cents today, the lowest of ALL of the 24 fire districts in King County. Next year it will drop again, to 82 cents.

In the intervening 27 years, emergency calls to VIFR have risen 260 percent. Roughly 80 percent of these calls are for medical emergencies. VIFR is this island’s only emergency medical service. There is no one else. But simultaneous emergency calls are increasing; there are at least two four times a week. That completely maxes out VIFR’s response capacity. And yet three or more simultaneous emergencies are happening at least twice a month, and sometimes more.

In the past, VIFR has relied upon volunteer responders. In 1990, we had more than 60 on-island trained emergency responders. Today we have 9. To compensate, VIFR has hired career first responders and added off-island volunteers who work here—one or two at a time—on shifts. If there is a building fire, VIFR seldom has enough firefighters to meet state standards to enter the building. In addition, most of VIFR’s fire and aid vehicles have aged beyond national standards.

Next year, VIFR reports that its operations budget will be short $1.2 million and the reserves it has drawn down in past years to keep serving the island will be exhausted. Already dangerously understaffed and under-equipped, VIFR will have no choice but to cut back even further.

For many islanders this financial crisis may come as a surprise.  But VIFR’s records make it clear that it is not. With 27 years of declining levy rate s, VIFR has had to pirate its own equipment and facilities reserves just to stay in business. Other fire districts in the county regularly request their voters to “top up” their declining revenue with new levies every few years. But VIFR’s past Commissioners have had a zero-tolerance position about rate increases for more than a quarter century. The results of this policy of “kicking the can down the road” have finally, and dangerously, come home to roost.

VIFR’s new Chief, Charlie Krimmert, spent nine months researching the district’s financial condition. He presented the results to his elected Commissioners in a series of public meetings and, this summer, the Commissioners agreed unanimously to restore the old 1990 tax rate of $1.50 per thousand. As one Commissioner said, “I’m not a tax increase fan, but we have been pinching pennies for so long there are no pennies left to pinch.”

Some people contend that the proposed rate increase is too big. But consider this: if it had been spread out over periodic elections over the last 27 years, it would amount to about two cents per year. But that never happened and now it is time to catch up. According to the King County Assessor, the median assessed value of houses here on Vashon next year will be just over $450,000. Applying the restored tax levy rate from 1990 would mean about $22 to $25 per month for an average homeowner.

The funds received from the revised levy would, first and foremost, cover the $1.2 million shortfall in next year’s budget. The remaining funds would add more on-duty island responders and begin rebuilding reserve funds to replace obsolete equipment and begin to address a long list of deferred building maintenance problems.

The decision is now: a YES vote on Proposition 1 means ensuring our safety today and tomorrow. A NO vote means deeper cuts in first responders and further erosion of VIFR’s emergency response capabilities.