The Key Peninsula Fire District will hire half the number of additional firefighters that it pledged to voters before they approved a tax measure this fall to bolster the district’s deficient emergency response.
Calling the situation “unfortunate,” Fire Chief Tom Lique last week said he went to elected fire commissioners a week after the November general election and presented them a draft 2013 budget with a $200,000 shortfall – even with the new tax revenue added.
“The last thing we want to do is make it look like we’re not being truthful to the voters,” Lique told The News Tribune.
“If everything had gone perfect, (eight new firefighters) would have been the goal,” he added. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t play out that way.”
Even so, he expressed confidence that the district can improve response times. It still plans to staff a third fire station this summer, although it will fall short of its goal to operate all three stations around-the-clock with paid firefighters; it will continue to rely on volunteers at night to respond to 911 calls.
The fire district serves 17,000 people spread over 65 square miles, from the Purdy Spit all the way to the south end of the peninsula. It has 22 emergency responders on staff trained to fight fires and treat non-life-threatening injuries.
Lique was aggressive in publicizing his need for more professional firefighters this year. He sent out three press releases in a three-week period last spring, noting delays in his crews’ responses to significant fires, including at the historic Glencove Hotel. The News Tribune and Seattle television stations ran stories about the district’s plight.
The tax measure’s ballot statement noted approval “will allow the district to increase staffing by adding approximately eight responders.” Lique repeated that commitment in the district’s October newsletter.
Voters answered the call, approving the levy with 66 percent of the vote; it required a 60 percent “supermajority” to pass.
The measure is expected to raise $752,000 next year. It increases property taxes between 44 cents and 49 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for the next four years. That’s at least an extra $88 a year for the owner of a property assessed at $200,000.
But the district’s best hopes turned out to be off the mark. It expects to receive less tax revenue in 2013 due to declining property values and an increase in the number of owners not paying their taxes, Lique said. The district’s firefighters are owed raises next year, costing another $70,000, according to budget meeting records.
The district also needed to make room for the return of an employee who retired after suffering a back injury in 2007. The firefighter had a medical procedure last year that allowed him to return to work, and state law required the district to bring him back, the fire chief said. His wages and benefits will cost the district $110,000 a year.
“It was definitely a shock,” Lique said of the employee’s return.
If the November levy had failed, the district would have had to lay off three of its current firefighters to balance the 2013 budget.
As it stands, the district will be able to gradually make new hires. Lique said he plans to hire two new firefighters this summer and another two by May 2014.
Lique said he and fire commissioners have discussed foregoing the revenue from the levy in 2014 if they don’t see improvement in emergency response in the coming year.
Walt White, 54, has lived on the peninsula for more than 30 years. He said he’s routinely voted against tax measures because he felt the fire district was poorly managed.
White said he reluctantly voted for this levy because he agrees the district needs more personnel. He has an emergency scanner in his house and often hears delays in response by district firefighters or calls to neighboring districts for backup help.
He said he’s frustrated the district is backing out of its commitment to voters.
“It’s left us with a really bad taste in our mouths out here,” White said.
Key Peninsula Fire Commissioner Keith Davies also said he was disappointed in the funding shortfall, but he stressed the district wasn’t trying to deceive voters.
A Gig Harbor firefighter, Davies responds to Key Peninsula when it doesn’t have firefighters available to respond to a call, so he’s aware of the district’s staffing issues on two fronts.
“The board’s objective is to do the best we can do for the community,” he said. “Staffing is a priority. Unfortunately, the economy isn’t being staffing-friendly.”
Davies said he had full confidence in how Lique handled the matter, saying “he doesn’t set the (assessed values for property).”
Davies said the board learned shortly before the election about the drop in tax revenue and didn’t have time to get the message out to voters that fewer firefighters would be hired.
In hindsight, he said the district should have been leery about using hard numbers in the ballot materials and will avoid doing so in the future.