As the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District 9 await the results of their maintenance and operations replacement levies on the ballots now arriving in the mail, thoughts inevitably turn back to the last time either one had a levy fail at the polls.
In District 9 that was in 1988 when the district tried a new funding mechanism called the benefit service charge. “The benefit service charge was just too complicated to explain,” said District 9 Fire Chief Bob Anderson. “The theory was that you would somehow come up with a process that would tie the benefit the property owner had to the rates he was paying.”
The rate formula was convoluted and residents didn’t like that there was no cap on the amount of money the district could charge and no cap on the length of the fee. “We went back to the regular M&O levy the following year and were successful,” he said. “The levy is a fixed dollar amount for a fixed amount of time. People know exactly what they’re voting on.”
That was the last time that funding mechanism was tried, Anderson said. “It did not go over well,” he said. “We would never do that again. We learned our lesson. I still have scar tissue.”
Anderson said his district didn’t have to lay off any firefighters, but employees did make concessions. “It set us back quite a bit,” he said. “It was a tough time.”
In 1988, Valley Fire was also a victim of the failed benefit service charge. It laid off 16 firefighters and briefly shut down Station 7 before realizing that the district had some levy money left. Twelve of the firefighters were called back 10 days later and the station was reopened, said Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson. The remaining firefighters were called back a year later and the department’s next M&O levy passed, he said.
A Valley Fire levy also failed on the first try in 1998, although it got 59.2 percent of the vote. Fire district levies require a 60 percent supermajority to pass. The levy passed on the second try that year.
But in 2012 the stakes are higher. The $6 million raised by the levy annually in District 9 accounts for 60 percent of its budget. The $16 million collected by Valley Fire is 53 percent of its budget.
Both organizations paint gloomy pictures of what would happen if they lose such a large chunk of their income. District 9 has nine stations covering a large swath of land north of the Spokane and Spokane Valley city limits. Five of the stations are staffed by paid firefighters and paramedics around the clock. Four stations are staffed by 115 on-call volunteers.
“We’d have to look at very significant cuts in service,” Anderson said. “The paramedic program we provide would be most likely eliminated. Citizens could anticipate higher insurance costs.”
The same consequences would be seen at Valley Fire. The department has said it will close six of its 10 stations and the number of firefighters and paramedics would drop from 146 to 66. There wouldn’t be enough paramedics left to provide advanced life support services. Response times would increase and the department would also lose the international accreditation it earned last year.
Both fire chiefs say they are cautiously optimistic, pointing out that the levies are not new taxes and that their organizations have cut costs.
“We’re not asking for any increase,” said Anderson. “We’re trying to keep the rates the same. We reduced our budget last year by about $600,000 and this year we’re also using some of our reserves to subsidize our budget.”
A series of fire station open houses is planned in the district to spread the word about the levy, Anderson said. “We’re certainly doing our best to get the word out to the community,” he said. “It’s not a new measure. It’s a renewal. We’ve had good support for the last 20 years. It’s not building buildings or buying shiny objects, it’s just maintaining existing operations.”
Valley Fire has also dipped into its reserves and employees have agreed to do without pay raises.
“I’m always an optimist, but I’m not going to take anything for granted,” Thompson said. “I’m confident that we can inform people about what we’ve done and the good service we provide and they’ll be supportive.”
But both chiefs are also pragmatic. They have already filed to have their levies appear again on the November ballot just in case they fail. It seemed a prudent step to take given the loss of the Spokane County Fire District 8 M&O levy last year.
That failure has left District 8 struggling, said Fire Chief Bill Walkup. “We have not been out replacing apparatus and equipment,” he said. “We have cut back in all operational areas and all training.”
The levy got a majority of the vote, but not the 60 percent supermajority required. Walkup said he hopes Valley Fire and District 9 have better luck.
“I’m very optimistic that they will have success at the ballot box,” he said. “I wish them well.”