After our Jan. 24 story on the South Kitsap Fire & Rescue levy proposal that will be on the April 17 ballot, readers had questions and raised issues that called for more information.
I contacted SKFR Chief Wayne Senter via email for a Q&A. In the interest of space, I have paraphrased portions of Senter’s replies.
The ballot measure calls for a temporary (six-year) levy lid lift or special levy that would replace the current special levy, expiring at the end of 2012.
KS: Let’s cut to the chase. How many employees would be laid off if the levy fails and how many of those would be firefighters?
WS: “Although no final decision has been made, the department anticipates a reduction in force of 20 full-time employees, including 18 firefighter-EMTS and 2 support staff. This would likely force the department to convert 3 of its 8 fully staffed stations to volunteer stations, meaning response times “will increase from 10 to 15 minutes depending on the exact circumstance. This increase would likely be deemed as a gross deviation from credible emergency response times and would result in de-accreditation (national fire safety standards) for SKFR. Longer response times mean more community risk.”
KS: You call this a “replacement levy.” How much do you anticipate collecting in 2013 if the levy passes?
WS: The same amount as in 2012.
plus a 1 percent annual increase
allowed by state law.
In 2012 SKFR’s combined fire and Emergency Medical Services property tax assessments will generate an estimated $12 million. The temporary fire levy lid lift that expires at the end of this year represents about $1.7 of that amount this year.
“It is that exact amount of money we seek to renew for 2013.”
By that, he means $12
million is the base amount from which the 1 percent increase would
be calculated. Separately factored into tax collection calculations
is an amount attributed to new construction.
KS: What does that mean to property owners?
WS: This year (2012), the special levy accounts for about 27 cents of the district’s total fire levy collection rate, which is $1.38 per $1,000 of assessed property value. So the levy lid lift/temporary levy in 2012 costs the owner of a $250,000 home $67.50 per year. That’s the part fire officials are seeking to replace.
Besides the permanent fire levy and the temporary fire levy lid lift, 50 cents per $1,000 is collected for the Emergency Medical Services levy. Voters approved the six-year EMS increase in 2009.
So SKFR’s total rate in 2012 is $1.88 per $1,000 of assessed value.
KS: What would the rate be in 2013 if the levy passes?
The anticipated rate that will be on the fire levy lid lift ballot measure is $1.48 per $1,000 of assessed value. That’s the amount fire district officials conservatively estimate will be required to maintain the current level of funding.
Pinpointing the exact rate needed is not an exact science, however, because the rate for any given year is based in part on the total assessed value of property in the fire district, a variable that’s hard to predict. The fire district gets projections from the assessor that it uses in setting the rate.
“We plan to ask for a rate that will ensure we are able to continue the same level of funding from 2012 into 2013,” Senter said.
Suffice it to say that unless your home took a big jump up in value, due to an addition for example, the taxes you would pay in 2013 would be pretty much in line with what you’ve been paying.
KS: Why is it called a “levy lid lift?”
WS: “A fire district’s maximum rate limit is $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value for the fire levy, and it’s 50 cents per $1,000 for EMS levies.”
The lid or the limit in any given year is controlled by the maximum rate but also by the total collection amount in the previous year. If the previous collection amount, plus the one percent increase and the value of new construction factored in results in a rate that’s lower than the maximum, the lower rate will prevail.
South Kitsap’s combined fire and EMS levy rate, at $1.88, is 12 cents below the maximum.
According to Kitsap County Assessor Jim Avery, the county has been keeping track of what the rate would have been had the lid lift in 2006 not passed. If the April 17 levy fails, the county will use the alternate records to set the rate for 2013.
If the levy passes, the fire district will be allowed to set the rate above the “lid” that results from the previous year’s base rate times the 1 percent increase.
Fire districts in Kitsap County that are at their maximum rate include Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue, North Kitsap Fire & Rescue and Poulsbo Fire District.
KS: You have said that the fire district could have asked voters for a permanent levy increase in 2006, but they went with a temporary measure in the name of accountability. Past levy failures indicated voters wanted SKFR to check in periodically to show taxpayers were getting their bang for the buck. What data do you have to show the impact of levy money from 2007 through 2012?
WS: Here is a breakdown by year on the improvements we have made
• 2004 eliminated four support positions and hired 3 additional FF/EMT’s; raised the minimum staffing from 13 to 15.
• 2006 hired 9 additional FF/EMT’s and staffed station 11 (Bethel) with two 24/7; raised the minimum staffing from 15 to 17.
• 2009 hired 12 additional FF/EMT’s and staffed station 9 (Yukon Harbor) with two 24/7; raised the minimum staffing from 17 to 19
• 2011 eliminated another support staff position
These changes improved our average response times throughout SKFR as follows:
2005 – 665 seconds
2006 – 551 seconds
2007 – 526 seconds
2008 – 488 seconds
2009 – 492 seconds
2010 – 492 seconds
2011 – 470 seconds
This is net gain in 195 seconds or 3 minutes and 15 seconds in just six years.
KS: When you asked voters to approve the special levy in 2006, you laid out how the money would be spent. What does the fire levy lid lift pay for, and what does the EMS levy pay for?
WS: The initial temporary fire levy funded the staffing of station 11 (Bethel). The last EMS levy (six year levy) went to fund the staffing of station 9 (Yukon Harbor).
“We don’t do cost centers for each fire station but we do keep track of EMS costs as it relates to the paramedic services, or advanced life support. That line item in our 2012 operating budget is at $2,681,257. This doesn’t include the EMS services, which are funded through the fire suppression line of the 2012 budget, and that line shows, $8,201,540. Since 71perceent of the work our responders do is medical work, it is safe to say that 71percent of the “fire suppression” budget line is spent answering EMS calls.
“We could logically say that approximately $5,823,093 goes to that effort. Together these two lines represent $8,504,350 in the 2012 budget that goes toward staffing for EMS readiness. This does not include capital items and the support systems in place to facilitate that service delivery. Items that fall into support include: training, facility maintenance, vehicle maintenance/replacement, human resources, finances, fire prevention, etc.”
KS: So does that mean that Bethel would be one of the stations reverting to volunteer staff if the levy fails? Is Yukon Harbor also on the possible closure list, since it most recently came on line?
WS: Not necessarily. Bethel is a highly populated area, and Yukon Harbor serves a relatively isolated portion of the district. Should the levy fail, fire officials will come up with a yet-to-be-determined strategy for closures that will have least impact possible on response time.
KS: A few words here about “banked capacity,” a form of taxing authority. SKFR’s has had it during the current levy, so you’ll want to take note.
Banked capacity is property tax money the district is entitled to collect. A district banks taxing capacity when they take less than the amount to which they are entitled. Whatever amount they decline carries forward year to year as money they could collect should they choose.
When a district puts a measure on the ballot, they must state the total collection amount for the first year, which sets the basis for future years of the levy. They also must state an estimated collection rate per $1,000 of assessed property value. Because property rates are another variable that’s hard to predict, the rate that goes on the ballot is the district’s best guess. So sometimes the collection rate generates more than the total collection amount asked of voters.
In South Kitsap’s case, the stated rate in 2006 would have generated more in the first year than the total collection they were after. Although the district legally could have taken the full amount in 2007, they declined to do so, “banking” the difference. In subsequent years, they have tapped their banked capacity a bit at a time and they now have $204, 281 left. But that amount goes away with the current levy.
If the new levy passes, there is the chance banked capacity could be created again, but according to Senter, the district will stick to its policy of using it “only to the degree we need to maintain the level of service.”
KS: What was the cost of the analysis/study to see if the fire district merger between SKFR and Bremerton Fire Department was workable?
WS: “Over a five period of time when the merger talks were very active, SKFR spent approximately $18,791.89 to support that effort. The support included a feasibility report, benefit charge analysis (a study of the costs compared to the benefits and potential savings) and some legal work.”
The $18,791.89 represents SKFR’s share of the study cost, which was shared with Bremerton Fire Department and Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue
“Through this work we discovered that it made financial sense in the long run to merge. However, the employee groups disagreed with the timing of a merge and some citizens felt that the financial plan could end up subsidizing services.
“In the end we did find ways out of these discussions to cooperate more without a full merge. Those examples include closest station response for the SKIA, Navy Yard City, Rocky Point, and Tri-Lakes areas.
“The annual cost for exploring this money saving option was approximately $3,800; we have saved time and money in excess of that as a direct result of the full merger discussions.”
KS: Some comments on the story suggested that the stations are overstaffed, with firefighters and EMTs spending much of the time sleeping. Can you describe you shift policy and firefighter duties.
WS: “SKFR staffs 8 of our 16 fire stations in the South Kitsap community on a 24 hour basis. We have at minimum of 19 responders on duty at all times. One shift leader (battalion chief), three firefighter paramedics, seven firefighter/EMT’s, and eight crew leaders (lieutenants), who are all either firefighter/EMT’s or firefighter/paramedics.
“These personnel are dispersed in six fire stations (9,10,11,14,16,17) that have crews of two. One station (31) in Port Orchard has four on-duty and one station (8), our headquarters, has three.
“All firefighters are either emergency medical technicians or paramedics, because over 70 percent of our work is emergency medical. Each two-person fire station has a medical vehicle and fire engine. Depending on the nature of the call, that crew takes the appropriate vehicle.
“The firefighters are assigned to one of three shifts and they rotate through a 24 on, 48 off work cycle. This 24/7/365 work schedule covers weekends and holidays, and amounts to an average work week of 49.46 hours without overtime.
“During the shift, the firefighters maintain a regular daytime schedule which includes a number of structured activities. These start off with apparatus and equipment checks, cleaning and light maintenance at the beginning of the shift. Other activities following apparatus checks include at least two hours of training on fire or EMS skills, physical fitness training, station maintenance, project work on specific assignments given to each shift (hose, ladders, supplies, curriculum development, etc), public education/tours, fire prevention activities, pre-incident planning for new and old buildings and mealtimes.
“Emergency calls, the documentation following the response and placing equipment back in service occurs throughout the shift. During the evening time, crews are allowed to standby or rest/sleep between responses until morning where they conduct a shift transfer to the oncoming crew. We average 22 emergency calls a shift and many of those occur after the dinner hour.”