The special election calling on Spokane voters to consider renewing the six-year tax levy to support emergency medical services is just over a week away.
If approved, city officials say the city’s EMS services would see a boost in funding that is critical for those operations.
This year’s special election, set for April 26, will ask voters to consider approving the levy for 2023-28 at 50 cents per $1,000 of 2022 assessed property value.
Approximately 77% of the money generated from the levy will go toward staffing for emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters who provide patient care. Other expenses include replacement of outdated equipment, vehicle maintenance and training.
“All of those have gone up in six years, while our ability to capture the 50 cents (per $1,000 of assessed value) has gone down,” said Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. “That’s just a mathematical fact with levies, unfortunately, for the state.”
On the face of it, that 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value is the same rate voters approved in 2016.
It’s more complicated than that, however.
By approving the rate, voters set the total EMS dollar amount collected through the levy – in this case, an estimated $13.1 million for the 2023 fiscal year. That amount can only increase in subsequent years by 1% plus a small increment for new construction activity.
In the years after 2017, however, the allowable increase to the amount collected by the levy did not keep pace with Spokane’s rising property values. The levy has effectively only collected 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed value based on current property values, according to the city.
If approved, the effective rate would reset to 50 cents per $1,000 of 2022 assessed value, raising the amount collected to $13.1 million – a $3.7 million difference from the approximately $9.4 million currently collected.
For the 2022 budget, the $9.4 million represents around 16% of the approximately $57.2 million fire/EMS department budget.
Just less than $45 million, or 78%, comes from the city’s general fund, which supports municipal services – including fire and EMS – through sales, property and taxes.Whether that level of general fund support would stay the same if the renewed levy is approved would be up to the architects of the city budget, Mayor Nadine Woodward and the Spokane City Council, come budget season, Schaeffer said.
He hopes it will, however, citing increased costs of operation and the need to replace certain lifesaving equipment, such as LifePak 15 health monitor/defibrillators and video laryngoscopes, and training paramedics to be ready in the event of “another critical event for the community” like the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said supply issues from the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the department’s ability in recent years to replace certain equipment, such as ventilators.
“If you go through it line by line, there’s certainly going to be enhancements that this levy will allow us to do,” Schaeffer said, “and that’s where I would really, for the policymakers, as the fire chief, my desires would be to invest in those opportunities when we have the enhancement for the first year of the levy.”
City Council President Breean Beggs said he doesn’t see the council reducing that appropriation at all.
As it is, the fire department’s budget is projected for a $5 million to $7 million deficit by the end of the year due largely to staffing costs with increased overtime, he said. Beggs said the fire department doesn’t have enough firefighters to meet minimum staffing levels without overtime, a situation compounded by hiring struggles nationwide and measures passed this year by the state Legislature to improve firefighter – and law enforcement – retirement benefits.
“The first piece is if you don’t renew it, we won’t be able to keep up with costs that have been increasing to provide emergency medical services to people on demand quickly,” he said. “Now if it didn’t pass, it would not only not keep up, but we would lose that … and there would be tons of paramedics laid off and our response times would just tank and we just wouldn’t have the kind of emergency medical service that people expect right now.”
Woodward said the levy renewal allows the fire department to keep up with the rising costs of EMS services and operation. The 50 cents represents the maximum amount that can be requested through the levy, Schaeffer said.
The levy vote has never failed in its history, Woodward said. Asked what would happen if it did, the mayor declined to speak to possible alternatives.
“We will be in trouble,” she said. “The fire department will be in trouble.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.