Most South Sound residents implicitly grasp the value of keeping first responders fully staffed, trained and equipped. If they don’t grasp it, all it takes is one frantic call to 911 to make them wise up.
There’s no question, then, that paramedic and firefighter crews need a reliable slice of local property taxes.
But fire district leaders also must prove they’re good stewards of public dollars. That’s why they typically go to voters every four to 10 years and present their case for levy renewals.
This year two local fire districts have requests on the Aug. 6 ballot. West Pierce Fire & Rescue is taking the traditional renewal route, which Lakewood and University Place voters should support. Meanwhile, Key Peninsula Fire Department wants to switch to a permanent property tax levy, which ought to make voters think twice.
In West Pierce, three propositions are on the ballot accounting for 85 percent of the district’s budget. The requests include renewal of a four-year maintenance and operations levy that expires this year, plus a six-year “lid lift” for both the regular levy and EMS levy.
Lifting both lids would adjust for a growing workload and rising property values while allowing West Pierce to collect a total of no more than $2 per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a median-priced home in the district (roughly $300,000) would pay a total estimated additional tax of $2.52 a month.
It’s a fair price in light of call volumes that have soared by 28 percent since 2011. The growth in calls comes with the combined territory of Lakewood and UP, an urban core with more than 100,000 residents that encompasses a hospital, two colleges, the state’s largest psychiatric institution, five lakes, Puget Sound waterfront, Chambers Bay golf course and a shopping mall.
In its first staffing expansion in a decade, West Pierce wants to add five firefighters a day across its six stations, while also adopting innovations for the 21st century.
More and more, the district is being tasked with non-emergency medical care, in part caused by rising homelessness, mental health and substance abuse issues. Starting this summer, it’s no longer dispatching an advanced-life support vehicle to every call; later this year, it will start sending a “sprint car” to lesser calls instead of the closest fire engine.
On Key Peninsula, first responders are up against similar challenges in some of the most remote corners of Pierce County; the Fire Department’s operating budget is down $63,000 since 2017. Its request to restore the EMS levy to 50 cents per $1,000 of property valuation is consistent with West Pierce and other fire districts.
The difference is that Key Peninsula is asking for a permanent levy, rather than having to return to voters in a few years.
Yes, levy renewals are a bit inconvenient, and it costs to put up yard signs and run a campaign. But elections are a key safety valve to express discontent with cost or quality of service. Voters should be wary of reducing accountability on a department that has churned through fire chiefs and made questionable decisions in the last decade.
Key Peninsula’s EMS levy doesn’t expire until 2020, when its other levies will be on the ballot. So if this measure fails, the department has time to bring back a traditional EMS renewal — one that doesn’t take shortcuts on the road to sustainable funding.