East County Fire and Rescue is making another attempt, with one major difference, at a property tax levy increase after a rejection last November.
If approved by a simple majority in the Aug. 6 election, a one-year levy lid lift would allow the district to set the collection rate at $1.50 per $1,000 of current assessed property values. Voters previously approved a levy in 2008 at the same rate, when inflation costs and property values were lower. The 34-cent raise would cost the owner of a $450,000 home an additional $12.75 per month.
Since the previous levy, the real value of the rate has fallen from $1.50 to $1.16, according to the district. Under state law, local governments can only collect 1 percent increases to property tax revenue each year, hampering the emergency services agency’s ability to keep up with inflation.
“We’re not going to provide the same level of service we provide today next year without it,” East County Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Carnes said.
The district serves roughly 10,000 people and more than 60 square miles outside the Camas, Washougal and Vancouver city limits. Call volumes have ballooned by 52 percent since 2007, the district said last year.
The higher call volumes have bumped up operations costs, including 66 percent more overtime pay since 2016, according to the district. Also since 2016, fuel costs have risen by 47.6 percent and health insurance for employees by 16.8 percent.
In November, 53.38 percent of voters rejected a lid lift at the same rate with one major difference: it had a five-year lifespan. East County Fire and Rescue Commissioner Martha Martin pointed to the time length and a number of school bonds on that ballot as a possible reason for the rejection.
“We are listening to our citizens who were concerned,” Martin said. “It was really asking a lot of our voters.”
Since then, the district has made some cuts.
It terminated an interlocal agreement for the shared service of Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart, prompting Carnes’s promotion from deputy chief. East County previously paid Swinhart $37,000 per year for 37 1/2 hours of work per month.
Also, since Jan. 1, the district has been subject to “browning out” one of its two stations. When staffing needs aren’t met due to illness or vacations, the district has said it will move employees from stations on different sides of the service area to one, more central location.
If the upcoming lid lift fails, the district would not be able to afford current staffing levels, Carnes said. He said the brownout would become permanent, presenting geographical challenges.
Employees operate full-time out of Station 91, 600 N.E. 267th Ave., Camas, and Station 94, 1808 S.E. 352nd Ave., Washougal. The more central station, Station 93, is at 121 N.E. 312th Ave., Washougal.
Both stations currently in operation are separated by the Washougal River, which only has two bridges, Carnes said. He added that response times could rise as a result of moving responders to one side of the river.
On top of centralization, the district has said it would also eliminate advanced firefighter training and need to take out loans, with interest, to replace two 13-year-old response vehicles. Self-contained breathing apparatuses are also nearing the end of their usefulness.
“All those costs are going up higher than the 1 percent that we’re given each year,” Carnes said.
Staffing shortfalls would also increase the district’s insurance rating, causing higher fire insurance premiums for home and business owners, according to the district. East County’s emergency reserves would also be depleted, the district said.
“It’s not overwhelming the citizens tax-wise,” Martin said. “Some things will happen if this does not pass, so it’s just letting people know that.”