Property tax increase for fire district draws heat

Posted 1/18/23

Voters are about to have several irons added to the fire before the upcoming special election in February.

To educate voters on operations at East Jefferson Fire Rescue and its funding measures in …

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Property tax increase for fire district draws heat

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Voters are about to have several irons added to the fire before the upcoming special election in February.

To educate voters on operations at East Jefferson Fire Rescue and its funding measures in the upcoming election, the department will be hosting two town hall-style events.

The department will offer presentations covering a newly developed strategic plan, fiscal challenges, and the new CARES program to show how the department is working to achieve its budget goals. The meetings will be 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18 and 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19.

“It’s meant to be an information briefing on the state of East Jefferson,” said East Jefferson Fire Chief Bret Black. “There are times for questions and answers. It’s a pretty loose format, so it’s not a regular board meeting or public meeting. It’s more of a town hall format.”

While the meeting is broad in scope, the hot topic will be the property tax proposals.

The ballot proposals seek approval of an increase from 36 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value to 50 cents for emergency medical services, and from 85 cents to $1.30 for general fire service.

“Where this proposal landed, we’ll be able to fix some of the challenges that we have with our spending and start turning back on a couple things that are really important, like firefighter safety equipment and training,” Black said.

“I’ve never seen a training budget as small as ours in my career. It’s 1 or 2 percent and it should be at least 10 percent of our budget,” he added.

Some who oppose the measures, however, believe the financial problems facing the department can be traced back to its turn away from volunteer firefighters that began before Black’s time.

“The previous city manager gave the union the opportunity to disband the volunteers, so as that moved forward the volunteers were systematically eliminated because the union didn’t want them,” said Peter Langley, who was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years and reached the rank of lieutenant within the department.

“If, say, I responded and became incident commander, the career staff wouldn’t follow orders and that is a major breakdown because they believe they should be in charge,” Langley said.

“The fire doesn’t know any different; it’s only the people in the department that do,” he added.

Langley claims that between the previous departments that have since merged to become East Jefferson Fire Rescue, there was once 106 volunteers with only 18 career staff.

The department is still considered a combination career and volunteer department with 40 career staff and approximately 40 volunteers, Black said.

Three or four of those volunteers are firefighters, he added.

“We’re one of the few agencies, that really, in my opinion, have a well-integrated volunteer presence in our community,” Black said. “It certainly doesn’t exist for a large portion of where I come from in California, and it’s pretty unique that we’ve been able to hold on and build our ranks, but I would love more.”

According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association from September 2022, of the total number of firefighters nationwide 364,300 (35 percent) were career firefighters and 676,900 (65 percent) were volunteer firefighters.

“It’s a West Coast phenomena,” Langley said. “They’re all basically unionized, and I don’t mind having a union. It’s just after a certain period of time they get kind of greedy.”

Langley has spoken with Black previously on the matter and also mentioned that he has been asked by community members to attend the town halls and voice his criticisms.

Alongside a more robust volunteer program, Langley believes that taxes other than those on assessed property value could be sought, such as a transient tax on events like the Wooden Boat Festival and THING that bring in tourists, or excise taxes on vacation homes and Airbnb properties.

Even Black admits that more volunteer efforts are possible.

“I would be happy to have a large cohort of volunteers, much larger than 40. I think we can do better than that,” Black said.

At the same time, he believes filling those roles is a challenge.

“To ask a volunteer to have to support themselves financially and be a good member of the community, to also give up the same number of hours that a career firefighter needs to do to maintain their [certifications] and qualifications, that’s a big ask,” Black said.

“We do have them. We want more of them,” he added.

More information on the ballot measures and the upcoming town hall meetings can be found at ejfr.org/uncategorized/february-2023-ballot-measure.

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  • Firechief544

    The volunteer system decline is more about, in part, to the training requirements the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has tacked on to being a fully eligible structural firefighter.

    In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a firefighter’s initial training was around 45-60 hours. Now it is doubled and growing.

    Additionally, alarm volume is another factor. A fire district much like East Jefferson Fire Rescue answering 4,000 + alarms a year and increasing by around 12% annually cannot expect or believe there will ever be enough qualified volunteer firefighters to fulfill the labor force.

    Our county has the distinction as one of the oldest age population in the state. The number of younger adults to draw from is limited in the numbers needed to recruit many volunteer firefighters as needed.

    As a volunteer who has served and still does, I believe Mr. Langley’s opinion may have some validity but is not the complete story nor answer it by any measure.

    Vote for the lid lift, the fire district is a vital service.

    Wednesday, January 18 Report this

  • greggk47

    If I remember right the city is still collecting for fire services even after the merger that was suppose to be more efficient. I appreciate EJFR and it's firefighters and emt's and support them but maybe not their "strategic plan" which I'm sure is robust. 43% for fire and 53% for EMT is to rich for today. Go get the money back from the City that approved the union and got rid of most of the volunteers. I see nothing wrong with a union except when it excludes volunteers or allowing incident command..

    5 days ago Report this