By Caitlin Rothermel
The Vashon Island Fire and Rescue levy (Proposition 1) is coming to a vote this August. If the levy is voted in, the VIFR annual budget will grow from $6.7 million in 2023 to as high as $10.4 million in 2029. In our population-stable community of 10,866 people (based on United States Census data), that’s an increase from about $600 to $1000 per person per year.
I think the levy is likely to pass. I also think that VIFR’s campaign has been manipulative and non-transparent. It has focused on emotion and fear, and hasn’t provided the kind of budgetary detail that would allow a thoughtful person to consider the proposed increases. This is disrespectful to the community.
There are some things I believe we can all agree on. VIFR has done great work protecting us from fire and helping with health crises. We want to feel safe and that our property will be secure from fire and destruction. We don’t want to see home insurance rates increase dramatically because we don’t have close-enough access to fire personnel, and we are concerned for our neighbors who are most affected by these issues.
Research also shows that the VIFR is doing a great job – we know this from word of mouth and because VIFR hired a professional consulting group to conduct a survey. Only 3% of Islanders responded, which is unfortunate. Nonetheless, 81% of them said that our firefighters are kind, courteous, and professional. Among respondents who had personally witnessed or received a VIFR response, 95% reported the quality of service as “good” or “excellent.”
If these points are easy to agree on, then why any hesitancy about Propostion 1? First, the amount of the proposed increase is bitingly high: An immediate 34% lift (raising property tax rates from $1.12 to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value), followed by subsequent increases up to 6% annually for the next 5 years. For contrast, San Juan Island (population 8,632) has a levy rate of $0.35 per $1,000, while Bainbridge Island (population 24,456) has a combined fire and EMS levy rate of $1.20 per $1,000. For us on Vashon, it’s also important to note that we pay an additional $0.25 per $1,000 for Medic One medical emergency services.
VIFR is not being clear regarding the progressive cash outlay their plan will require. The VIFR Levy Lid Lift FAQ “What will this cost?” tab does not show projected revenue increases over time, only for 2024. In fact, most of what I have read about the levy lift has only looked at its first-year impact.
It is worth mentioning that VIFR staffing grew substantially in 2023. Firefighter base salaries increased from $1.28 to $1.87 million between 2022 and 2023, representing 7 new full-time firefighters/EMTs. There is also a lot more administration. In 2022, base administrative salaries were $176,000; in 2023, this grew to $710,521 for office administration and three chief officers dedicated only to administration.
You can review the VIFR budgets for yourself; visit the newly launched website, https://vashonsafety.org/VIFR/financials/, where you will find full budget summaries going back to 2013.
VIFR has also conducted a messaging campaign to emphasize our lack of ongoing safety with current arrangements. This has stoked tension both online and in-person. Once again, neighbor-upon-neighbor is accusing each other of “not caring for grandma” if disagreement occurs.
Last, VIFR is failing to consider the real financial situations of many community members. Island resident Steven Nourse has been vocal in his opposition to the levy, pointing out the disproportionate impact it will have on retirees on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, and other low-income earners.
According to Steve: “I met a young woman who works on the Island. She holds down two jobs and works 7 days a week for a total of 70 hours weekly. I asked her why she worked so many hours. She stated, ‘I love Vashon, and I feel included and safe here. I have to work all these hours to be able to live here financially.’
“Here is a good, hard-working person who may not be able to afford Vashon. This would be worsened due to increased taxes imposed on all Island citizens if Proposition 1 is approved.
“It seems as if every public and private agency on Vashon is screaming equality, equity, and multi-culturalism. If so, let’s live up to these goals through our actions and not just our posters and words. This is why I am against Proposition 1 as it is currently written.”
If this measure does not pass, we hope that the VIFR will return with a more reasonable and specific request that transparently lays out priorities for progressive improvements.