Gateway

Gig Harbor Fire regains financial footing 10 years after hard-hitting recession

Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One crews delight in their new 2018 Ford F-450 ambulance. The new, bright red truck, which cost the district between $100,000 to $160,000, gives local emergency medical services crews updated technology and tools to help residents in crisis on the west side of the peninsula near Artondale.
Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One crews delight in their new 2018 Ford F-450 ambulance. The new, bright red truck, which cost the district between $100,000 to $160,000, gives local emergency medical services crews updated technology and tools to help residents in crisis on the west side of the peninsula near Artondale. Gateway file photo

The Gig Harbor Fire District is basking in a small glow of success after seeing a comeback from reduction in staff and revenue attributable to the 2008 recession.

“We are finally back up to the levels we were working at before the crash, which we are excited to see,” Gig Harbor Fire Chief John Burgess said.

The Gig Harbor Fire District covers 54 square miles, including unincorporated Gig Harbor, Fox Island and Raft Island. Within the district there are nine fire stations, five of which are fully-staffed around the clock. The district provides both fire and medical emergency services to the peninsula.

The district began in 1945 as an all-volunteer fire department. The district did not hire its first full-time employee until 1973.

“We just hired 11 new firefighters, a few entry-level and lateral, which we are very excited about because they will be starting soon,” Burgess said. “Now we can start discussing whether we want to start staffing some of our volunteer-only stations.”

Burgess said the district has stayed afloat thanks to the support of two levy-lid lift proposals in the past few years.

“Property values were hit hardest (in 2008), and we had to start ‘browning-out’ stations,” Burgess said. “In the heart of the recession, the voters increased the (emergency medical services) levy.”

In 2011 and 2016 the district proposed a levy-lid lift, and both passed with over 60 percent of the vote.

In a community that’s struggled to pass a school bond proposal and is being asked to support an increase in sales tax by the city, Gig Harbor Fire Commissioner Bryce Nelson thinks excellent service and dedicated staff is the reason the community has continued to support the district.

“I think it has to do with the nature of our service,” Nelson said. “Our firefighters go above and beyond what is required. And also all we do is fire, so it’s easier to support our efforts.”

The Gig Harbor Fire Commission is currently reviewing its 2019 budget and is looking at replacing some older trucks and fixing up the district’s building infrastructure.

The current tax rate for the district is $2 per $1,000 of taxable home value. Burgess prides himself on the rate, which is lower than nearby Key Peninsula and West Pierce.

“We are still the best value for your buy, being the lowest tax rate in the county compared to other districts,” Burgess said.

The assessed value of the district, the total value of all properties within the district, reached $10.5 billion in the last year. The district’s total revenue is now $22.7 million. Burgess said in the last couple years the district has been able to restore its financial reserve by placing 15 percent of its revenue into savings. This year an additional $250,000 was added to the reserve.

Nelson said having a financial reserve is how the district was able to function independently after the housing crash in 2008.

“We couldn’t just stop being a district,” Nelson said. “People still needed fire and medical services despite the recession.”

Burgess said the levy-lid lifts have helped the district keep up with the increased growth on the peninsula as well. In the last five years, calls for service has gone up 29 percent.

“We have had to react to growth instead of plan,” Nelson said. “Soon we’d like to prepare for more growth.”

The district has a five-year strategic plan with a list of priority projects and goals it hopes to meet before the six-year levy expires. The list includes:

Training new full-time employees and volunteers.

Creating better communication between the district and the community.

Creating more diversity in the district.

Fine tuning the district’s resource and capital management.

Updating building infrastructure.

Purchasing and fixing equipment including trucks and medical equipment.

Nelson said one of the projects he has his eye on is to buying the district its first ladder truck.

Nelson and Burgess also want to replace one of the district’s generators and a staff vehicle, too.

Burgess said he is hoping to use some money to emphasize the district’s volunteer program.

“We are in need of more volunteers than before,” Burgess said. “Back when I started it seemed like more people had time to volunteer. My perception is we are busier than ever before. People have less time, so we have less volunteers. Also our volunteer requirements and standards have gone up. So I want to see how we can grapple with this.”

Nelson said the district is waiting for state revenue numbers and plans to have the first draft of the 2019 budget ready by the Sept. 25 commission meeting.

The district’s financial success is an example of how community support can create an efficient community service.

“We are treated so well by our community,” Burgess said. “I think it’s because of the trust we build with the community. I don’t want to be corny, but it’s because we just have great firefighters.”

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