When the Spokane City Council placed a 10-year fire tax on November’s ballot, the timing was risky.
But an agreement reached last month with the Spokane Fire Fighters Union helped alleviate that risk. That’s because the city no longer is contemplating cutting fire jobs or closing a fire station at the same time it’s requesting money for new stations and equipment.
Last month, the city agreed to create an early retirement program for firefighters, a program expected to save about $700,000 next year, alleviating the need for firefighter layoffs.
That’s a relief to firefighters, who were concerned that job cuts would have hurt the proposition’s chances, said union President Greg Borg. Money for equipment and trucks is essential to providing quality services in the long run, Borg said.
“It’s not just a next-year issue, it’s a 10-year issue,” Borg said.
The city has depended on voter-approved property taxes to cover most fire expenses beyond personnel since 1989. The strategy has helped Spokane upgrade or rebuild many fire stations and pay for most of the trucks and gear now in service.
The last bond, for $21.3 million, was approved in 1999 and expires this year. The new 10-year tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 property $27 a year. That’s about a $10 increase from what the same taxpayer is charged for the current fire tax.
The proposition has no organized opposition, but George McGrath, a former City Council candidate, said voters should reject the tax. He argues that the department wastes too much money and points to the department’s use of fire engines on medical calls that don’t require firefighting.
“To me, utilizing all that equipment and all of that manpower is wasting taxpayer money by huge amounts,” said McGrath, a frequent attendee at City Council meetings.
Fire administrators have responded to that frequent criticism by pointing to its staffing levels, which were cut significantly in 2004. Since then, they say, firefighters on paramedic calls need the trucks with them so they’re ready to go to the next call.
Earlier this year, the city hired a consultant to advise them on the future of the department, especially on issues related to medical calls. That report is expected in the coming weeks.
Fire Chief Bobby Williams said if the consultant recommends a strategy that requires different apparatus than what’s proposed in the bond, language in the proposition allows the council to “modify how the dollars are spent.”
About a third of the tax would be earmarked for new stations. Possible locations could be in Latah Valley, Moran Prairie, Five Mile or the West Plains. The city is working to annex 10 square miles on the West Plains, including Spokane International Airport.
Adding new stations, however, could create future budget dilemmas.
The fire bond cannot pay to employ firefighters and “it would be pretty difficult to add an additional station without additional personnel,” Williams said.
Councilman Bob Apple, a supporter of the tax, said that staffing any new station could be paid for with new taxes collected in newly annexed areas.
Much of the tax will pay simply to maintain reliable equipment to allow quality service, Williams said.
“What we’ve tried to emphasize to the people is regardless of whether we were to lose firefighters or not, the needs do not go away,” Williams said.