By Pat Jenkins
Graham Fire and Rescue, hoping to hire more firefighters and paramedics to keep up with rising demand for emergency services, will ask voters this August to approve an $11 million maintenance and operations levy.
The four-year levy would cost taxpayers in the fire district $2.75 million per year. If it’s approved, the district would add 16 additional firefighters and paramedics, allowing the Thrift station to provide 24-hour coverage to the east side of the district while keeping units from other stations in their response areas.
The levy revenue would also allow two additional units, one of them an ambulance, to be available daily to help meet the current needs of the community and enable the district to be less-dependent on backup from other fire departments.
Fire districts depend on property taxes for funds to operate on and can only increase their rate tax collection with voters’ approval. Officials said Graham Fire has experienced a decrease of more than 20 percent in assessed valuation of property since 2008. During the same period, calls for service have increased more than 14 percent and are expected to keep increasing 3 to 6 per cent per year.
Last year’s calls totaled 5,644, 70 percent of them for medical emergencies. This year, if the rate that calls came in during the first three months continues, 5,965 will be handled by the end of 2014, according to district statistics.
The district, which has six fire stations serving a 70-square-miles area of approximately 61,000 people, answers about 16 calls per day with 11 firefighters and paramedics “as our minimum daily staffing,” said fire chief Ryan Baskett. The agency has 53 career and 20 volunteer⁄resident firefighters.
District officials have attempted to avoid layoffs and reductions in service by not replacing personnel who left, reorganizing the administration of the department to put more people on the streets, cutting costs, obtaining employee concessions, and depleting reserves down to the state auditor-recommended minimum level.
Even with those economies districtwide, the new Thrift fire station, originally staffed 85 percent of the time, is now staffed less than 25 percent of the time, according to offficials. Overtime costs are up and mutual aid assistance from neighboring districts is out of balance and can’t be continued, Baskett said. Response times are getting longer, an indication that the district can’t adequately cover the calls for service, he added.
The district’s commissioners commissioned a citizens advisory group to review the district finances, response times, projections of future call volumes, staffing needs and current costs. After the study, the advisory group unanimously recommended a maintenance and operations levy at the amount that will go before voters this summer.
Baskett said the district doesn’t want to live on the proposed excess levy forever. Based on recent economic growth, it will likely take more than 10 years to recapture the lost tax revenue, but as tax assessments rise and more homes and businesses are built, the levy rate will decline. “Eventually, we want to be fully funded back on normal tax collections,” he said.
If the new levy is rejected by voters, the trend of decreased staffing, longer response times and fewer units to answer calls would continue, and it would be harder for the district to pay for repairs to fire stations and fire trucks, officials said.
“This is a decision for the citizens. They will tell us what level of service they wish us to provide,” Baskett said. “Either way, we will continue to provide the best possible service with the funds given to us by the community.”
In an online survey by The Dispatch, the newspaper’s readers were asked if they support levies such as the one Graham Fire and Rescue is proposing. Three possible answers were provided. Forty-two percent of the respondents chose the answer of “Depends on how fire departments manage their money.” Thirty-two percent answered, “I’ll have to think about it.” Twenty-six percent replied, “Yes, enough personnel for fire and medical emergencies is essential.”
Similar sentiment was expressed by citizens The Dispatch contacted randomly for a Street Talk feature in today’s print edition (see page 6).
This August’s levy is the second the district has put before voters in the past three years. In 2011, a measure supporting emergency medical services passed with a 71 percent approval. The six-year, $2.5 million-a-year levy, which took effect in 2012, has the same property assessment rate – 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation – as the previous six-year EMS levy. Based on that rate, the owner of a home with an assessed value of $200,000 is paying $100 per year, for example.
In advance of the election in August, information about Graham Fire and Rescue’s levy is available at www.grahamfire.org and from the headquarters fire station at 253-847-8811.