By Pat Jenkins
By this time next week, votes will have started being cast in Graham Fire and Rescue’s levy election. Or, in the words of one of the fire district’s commissioners, voters will be deciding their level of service in fire protection and emergency medical services.
In the hope of hiring more firefighters and paramedics to keep up with the rising pace of emergencies, the district is proposing an $11 million maintenance and operations levy.
It’s on the primary election ballot that the Pierce County elections department will begin mailing to voters this Friday. Voters will have until Aug. 5 – election day – to mail their ballots back or deposit them in official drop-boxes.
To pass, the levy needs at least 2,592 yes votes and an overall approval rate of 60 percent.
The four-year levy would cost taxpayers in the district $2.75 million per year if it’s approved. Starting in 2015 and ending in 2018, the money would be collected at a rate between 52 cents and 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The funds would buy 16 additional firefighters and paramedics, allow the Thrift fire station (one of the district’s six station) to provide 24-hour coverage to the east side of the district, and provide two additional units – one of them an ambulance – daily to help Graham Fire meet the current needs of its 70-square-miles, 61,000-resident service area.
Bob Skaggs, one of the district’s three commissioners, said he tells Graham Fire voters that “it’s their fire department. Whatever level of service they want is up to them.”
He said “99 percent of the people like what we’re doing. They’re only concerned about the funding. The levy will give us a cushion as the economy gets better, which we believe it’s doing. This will allow us to maintain the present level of service.”
Graham Fire depends on property tax revenue for its budget. Assessed valuation of property in the district decreased 20 percent since 2008, causing a decline in tax receipts for fire protection and emergency medical purposes. Fire districts such as Graham can’t increase the rate of tax collection without a vote of the people, officials note.
At the same time that tax revenue has been declining, calls for service have increased more than 14 percent and are expected by district officials to keep increasing 3 to 6 per cent per year. In 2013, 5,644 calls were logged – 70 percent of them for medical aid. 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 officials.
About 16 calls per day are answered with 11 firefighters and paramedics, “our minimum daily staffing,” said fire chief Ryan Baskett.
The agency has 53 career and 20 volunteer⁄resident firefighters.
Officials say the district has tried to avoid personnel layoffs and reductions in service by not replacing personnel who left, reorganizing the administration of the department to make more personnel available for emergencies, obtaining employee concessions, and spending budget reserves down to the state auditor-recommended minimum level.
Despite those efforts, service is stretched thin, officials say. The new Thrift fire station, originally staffed 85 percent of the time, is now staffed less than 25 percent. Overtime costs are up and mutual-aid assistance from neighboring districts is out of balance and can’t be continued, Baskett said. He added that response times are getting longer, indicating that the district can’t adequately cover the calls for service.
If the new levy is rejected by voters, decreased staffing, longer response times and fewer units to answer calls would continue, and it would be harder to pay for repairs to fire stations and fire trucks, officials said.
Graham Fire has been meeting demand “with significantly less resources. But the ability to do more with less has reached a tipping point,” wrote Gina Leigh, Kurt Anthony Roehl and William Hicks in a formal statement supporting the levy. They volunteered to write the statement for the county voters pamphlet, which is distributed by county auditor to registered voters. No citizens submitted a statement against the levy.
Regardless of funding levels, Baskett said, the district will continue to serve the public to the best of its ability.
The current levy proposal is the second the district has put before voters in the past three years. In 2011, a measure supporting emergency medical services (EMS) passed with a 71 percent approval. The six-year, $2.5 million-a-year levy took effect in 2012.