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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Valley Fire asking for fire tax renewal: ‘We’re more than just a fire department’

Spokane Valley Fire Department firefighters put out a fire on row of bushes at the corner of Sullivan and Euclid on May 24, 2017.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Valley Fire Department firefighters put out a fire on row of bushes at the corner of Sullivan and Euclid on May 24, 2017. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Valley Fire Department is asking voters to renew a four-year tax on the Feb. 14 ballot.

Fire officials say the maintenance and operations levy is essential to the operations of the department’s 10 stations that cover 75 square miles.

The needs of the department continue to increase, said Fire Chief Frank Soto Jr., driven by rising population and an increased number of calls for service. The department responded to more than 23,000 calls in 2022, a 5% increase over 2021. Overall, calls have increased by 79% in the last five years, Soto said. “We’re busy,” he said.

The department is one of six in the state to be rated a Class 2 or above by the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau, which helps determine how much residents pay for their homeowners insurance. It is also one of only seven departments in the state to be accredited.

“We’re continuing trying to make ourselves better,” Soto said. “You don’t stay the same. You either get better or you get worse.”

Firefighters don’t just respond to fires and medical calls. It’s an agency that also provides hazardous materials responses, technical rescues and extrications, water rescues and helicopter rescues.

“We really are the tip of the spear out here,” Soto said. “We’re more than just a fire department.”

The levy is necessary because the regular fire levy that maxes out at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed home value does not fully fund the department, Soto said. In 2022, voters paid a combined total of $2.71 per $1,000 for the regular and M&O levy. That will drop to $2.58 per thousand for 2024-27 if the M&O levy renewal is approved by voters.

That works out to $25 million a year raised by the renewal of the M&O levy, which is down from the previous $30 million, Soto said. It will be the lowest M&O levy since 1990, Soto said. “It’s not a new levy,” he said. “You’re already paying it now. What we’re doing now is lowering it. All we did is take what we needed to stand up to operations we’re providing right now.”

In addition to paying for day-to-day operations, several improvements will be added if the levy renewal is approved.

Soto said two of the department’s stations, Stations 4 and 9, offer only basic life support care and not advanced life support. He’d like to make both of those stations ALS stations by hiring more paramedics. There are also old equipment and trucks that need to be replaced, and Stations 1, 2, 7 and 8 are due for remodels, Soto said.

The major addition would be to replace the 30-year-old training facility and 36-year-old training tower with a new training facility at Barker Road and Garland Avenue, which will be the site of future Fire Station 11. The training facility would be built to accommodate an engine that could respond from the location until the new station is built, Soto said.

Soto said he also wants to buy new fire engines for Stations 8 and 10, which now have tiller ladder trucks. The tiller trucks have an operator riding at the back of the truck to help steer it. Soto said he’d like to reserve those trucks for the fires they are needed for.

“It’s extremely expensive to run our tiller ladder trucks to ALS calls when we need something smaller and more mobile,” he said.

The levy renewal requires supermajority approval of 60% to pass. Soto said if it fails, the department will put it back on the ballot later this year because they cannot afford to lose the funding the levy provides.

If the levy does not pass, Soto estimates that the department would have to close three fire stations and lay off 66 people, including 58 firefighters. That would leave the department dangerously understaffed and unable to respond to multiple large calls at once, and some calls would not be responded to, Soto said.

Currently, the department has automatic aid agreements with all the surrounding fire departments to provide assistance when Valley Fire crews get busy and vice-versa. Those agreements would be canceled, because Valley Fire would no longer have the staffing to uphold its end of the bargain, Soto said.

“If it doesn’t pass, it’s going to be hugely impactful,” Soto said. “You’re going to feel it.”

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