For the first time in three tries, voters last year turned down Spokane’s request for a 10-year property tax to pay for new fire trucks and other emergency equipment.
That rejection, along with a continued shaky economy, has city officials worried about this month’s vote on the renewal of their six-year property tax that pays for emergency medical services.
On Wednesday, the Spokane County elections office began mailing ballots for the April 27 election. Like last fall’s fire bond, 60 percent of voters must approve the measure.
The levy, which will expire at the end of the year unless it is renewed, raises about $8 million of the Spokane Fire Department’s $40 million annual budget. Without it, city leaders say they may have to lay off dozens of city firefighters and close multiple stations.
Mayor Mary Verner said voters who opposed the fire bond should understand that the April vote is about maintaining service – not about buying new equipment.
“I’m really concerned about any request to the voters on a tax,” Verner said. “What we’re really trying to do this time is to make sure people know how essential this is.”
If the levy is renewed, the owner of a $100,000 property would pay about $50 a year. The city first passed an EMS levy in 1980 and voters have approved it every six years since. In 2004, however, the tax barely reached the 60 percent threshold.
The money pays directly for 54 positions in the Fire Department. Because civil service rules require more recent hires – who earn less – to be let go first during layoffs, rejection of the levy could result in even more cuts, said Fire Chief Bobby Williams. “If the EMS levy were to fail and we lost 85 to 90 firefighters, there’s no question we’d have to close stations, we’d have to reduce companies and I just don’t think there’s any question that our insurance rating would get worse,” Williams said.
A reduced insurance rating could result in homeowners having to pay higher insurance premiums.
Verner noted that the city’s projected $10 million deficit for 2011 would grow to $18 million if the levy fails. The threat of significantly reduced response times is not idle, she said.
“If we worsen the $10 million gap with not renewing the levy, it only makes the impacts on the citizens even more drastic.”
The Spokane City Council placed the levy on the ballot in a unanimous vote and this week passed unanimously a resolution recommending that voters approve it.
Like most metropolitan areas, Spokane’s EMS system is split between the public and private sectors. The city’s Fire Department is the first responder on scene. All firefighters have medical training, but since cutbacks in 2004 only eight of the city’s 14 stations have paramedics, who are called to scenes that require advanced life support.
“If we did not have that service, many people in our community would die every year – far more than we’d like to think about,” said Councilman Bob Apple.
According to the report from the Abaris Group, a consulting company hired by the city to recommend improvements to the system, the city’s Fire Department arrives at scenes within 7 minutes and 17 seconds 90 percent of the time. That meets the city’s response standard but is slower than the National Fire Protection Association’s recommended standard of 4 minutes.
The city does not charge for care it provides before patients are turned over to American Medical Response, the private ambulance company that contracts with the city to transport patients to the hospital. AMR charges patients for their work.
George McGrath, who hosts an AM radio talk show and testifies at most City Council meetings, pointed to the Abaris report in advising against the levy. He noted the Abaris report found some inefficiencies in the department.
“Guess who gets to pay for all of that, the taxpayers of the city of Spokane,” McGrath told the council this week. “I would tend to think that we are almost to the point of being taxed out.”
While the Abaris study makes several recommendations to improve service, cutting funding is not one. It calls the city’s EMS system effective and “extremely efficient” and warns that further declines in financial support likely would hurt response times.
“The fact that they are able to maintain a full service fire department with the current level of resources allocated is commendable,” the report said.