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Fire officials sound budget alarm

Thu., April 30, 2009

District weighs levy increase, station closures

Residents in Stevens County Fire District No. 1 are invited to attend a meeting tonight at Lakeside Middle School in Suncrest to offer input on how to proceed amid a budget crunch.

District officials say the budget is so strained that fire commissioners have to decide whether to seek a levy increase or close at least one fire station.

“Current revenue is not sufficient to allow us to maintain what we are currently doing,” Commissioner Bill Madison said. “We have over $300,000 in safety equipment needs that the manufacturers will no longer support and we can’t afford to replace.”

Fire Chief Mark Beck said the most urgent need is to replace the breathing apparatus firefighters wear in burning buildings. That equipment has to meet safety standards that are updated as technology improves.

The district’s breathing apparatus meets the 1997 standard.

“In November of last year, the manufacturer said they would no longer support this equipment – the latest safety standard update was in 2007,” Beck said. “To replace them is $5,500 a piece and we need to replace 50 of them – that’s $275,000 just for those packs.”

Beck said the district tried to “lift the lid” on the current fire levy at the August and November elections last year, but both levy increases failed.

“We were asking for the maximum lift, to $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value of your property,” Beck said. “It’s at 92 cents right now, and we are looking at either drastically reducing services or asking for a bigger levy.”

To appear on the ballot this fall, the levy lift initiative has to be filed by the end of May.

“At the forum I will explain how we have gotten into this mess,” Beck said. “If we ask for a levy, we’ll ask for a smaller one than last time, just enough to keep the doors open and address the safety issues.” Beck said he didn’t know what the specific levy amount would be.

The second option, he said, would be to close one or more stations. Fire stations at Suncrest, Ford, Deer Lake, Loon Lake, Twin Mountain and Stonelodge/Tum Tum are on the list of possible closures.

“Fire station closures do not just impact response times to emergencies,” Commissioner Skip Wells said, “but they also greatly impact the rates property owners pay for fire insurance.”

Beck said one estimate showed a $600 homeowner insurance bill for a $200,000 home could increase to $900 a year if the fire station is farther away.

“Homeowners who get a discounted rate because they are close to a fire station will no longer get that,” Beck said. “And the levy we’ll ask for may cost as little as $2 a month.”

Beck said the community forum is being held early to accommodate the May deadline for a possible ballot initiative.

“People may think we are crying wolf or we are just threatening them,” Beck said, “but we are asking now because we have to make the decision very shortly.”

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at (509) 459-5427 or piah@spokesman.com.


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