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Spokane Voters To Decide Fire/Police Measures On February 12

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Didn’t we just finish with an election? One in which the people elected congressional members and governors and state legislators and decided initiatives?

Now we’re back at it, at least in Spokane County, with five measures on the February 12 ballot. All but one pertain to property tax levies for fire and/or police services. [The Orchard Prairie School District is also running a property tax levy.]

Today, we’ll consider three of those measures, in the city of Spokane, in the Spokane Valley Fire District and Fire District 8.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

In the city, voters are asked to increase their property taxes by 30-cents-per-thousand dollars of assessed valuation to devote more money for police and fire. For the owner of a $200,000 home, that’s an extra 60 dollars. Proponents say the measure would allow the city to hire 20 new officers and retain at least 30 of the 48 firefighters who were hired more than a year ago with money from a federal grant.

We went to City Hall to talk about Proposition 1 with City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear and Randy Marler from the city firefighters’ union.

Lori Kinnear: “If we look at the police part of it, the 20 new police officers that we’re asking for by and large are going to be detectives. Some of them will be focused on property crimes. Some will be focused on domestic violence. I recall one detective saying he’d been on the force for 20-plus years, a detective, and doesn’t remember the last time a detective was hired. So that says to me there’s a gap. We know that the recent study that was done around police staffing, we’re a deficit 40 police. We’re not up to a standard for a city our size and when you have more police, they can be more proactive. So instead of being reactive, they’re actually going out and stopping crime before it happens. They’re more engaged in the community. I think a more engaged police force is going to be less likely to be stressed and do things that we’re going to react to as a citizenry and say, ‘that’s bad policing.’ We’re going to react and say they’re engaged in our community and that’s important.”

On the fire side, Randy Marler says the federal grant from the emergency agency FEMA that funded new firefighters is due to sunset at the end of this year.

Randy Marler: “I think it’s worthy to note our staffing levels. In the 1980s, we had staffed 87 firefighters per day. At that time, we were running less than 15,000 calls per year. Today, with the addition of these folks from the SAFER grant, we staff 71 firefighters per day and we’re running 45,000 calls per year. So the call volume has gone up dramatically. We’re still at less firefighters than we had in the 1980s. In 2005, we lost 56 positions in the fire department and so this is the first time we’ve been able to start to get some of those positions back just from where we were in the early 2000s. What I’ve noticed on the street, I work in Brownes’ Addition on a ladder truck, we’re able to be more prepared for emergencies in advance. It’s not a statistic, I don’t think, anybody’s keeping, but a lot of our training, before these folks, was done on calls because we’re so busy, all of our units. We didn’t have as much time for training to prepare and we do a tremendous amount of things in the fire service. We not only do fires, we run EMS calls, we do technical rescue, rope rescue, water rescue, Hazmat, wild land firefighting. We have a ton of specialties that we need to proficient at and having the time now, with some of our additional resources that are helping take up some of those calls, every other unit is having some time to train in advance. We’re more prepared before the emergency and we’ve definitely felt that on the streets.”

Some voters on social media say they’re torn about how to vote for this. Some say they fully support the increase for fire, but have reservations about police. Some blame a militaristic attitude among cops or perceived resistance to citizen oversight. They wish the ask was separated into two measures.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear says it makes more sense to combine them.

Lori Kinnear: “I think when you look at how they work together and in concert with each other, if you’re reducing the level of service to one, you’re also impacting the other. I think you have to look at the whole package. How are we, as a city, working together to make sure everybody is safer? That’s the piece that people to look at and say, it’s not an if, and, or, it’s together.”

Randy Marler: “On that note as well, I can say, from our perspective, I think combining them is a good thing. We see, out in the field when we respond to things, there are certain incident types where we need law enforcement to come with us. Without having properly staffed law enforcement, we end up having longer wait times on incidents waiting for law enforcement to show up. Some of those incidents, assaults or things where there’s violence, we have to wait until they get there and make sure the scene is safe before we can even provide emergency medical care. For us to be able to increase both and make sure we’re having law enforcement come, it helps us to get to our patients quicker, it gets us back in service for the next call sooner. I think it’s a great thing to holistically look at public safety and support both.”

Proposition 1 will be on the ballot in the city of Spokane. All of the money from the proposed increase in property taxes would to go to police, fire and crime prevention programs. It would also exempt many senior citizens and persons with disabilities from having to pay the increase.

Though the measure calls for retaining 30 of the 48 grant-funded firefighters, Marler and Kinnear expect 18 to be retained through attrition and money freed up through changes in city contributions to the firefighter pension system.

You can read more about the measure here.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

And now to the Spokane Valley fire measure. The department receives property tax money from people within its service district; that’s about 45% of its funding. And every four years, it asks voters for money specifically to run the department’s operations; that’s the other 55% of its support.

The district serves the cities of Spokane Valley, Millwood and Liberty Lake and some surrounding unincorporated areas.

Bryan Collins is the fire chief.

Doug: “So how does this levy compare to the levy that is expiring?”
Bryan Collins: “It’s close. It’s close both in the things we’re going to use it for, which are both operational, our day-to-day operations, but also we pay for all of our capital expenses. So that’s stations, any facility repairs, anything capital, apparatus that we buy, engines, ladder trucks, anything like that are paid for. We pay cash for that because we have a philosophy here that we don’t in debt; we don’t carry bonded in debt. That’s exactly how we used the money the last four-year cycle. In terms of numbers over the last cycle, which is expiring in 2019, the difference is about $10 on $100,000 assessed value, so there’s a little bit of a difference based on the cost of doing business and inflation that we’ve seen over the last four-year period.”
Doug: “What are some of the new things that you’re looking at in addition to the regular stuff you’ve got, paying your firefighters and that sort of thing?”
Bryan Collins: “Couple of big capital items coming in the future. The valley’s growing fast; we’re serving a full-time population of 125,000-plus people. One of our key responsibilities is try to project where that growth’s going to occur and keep up with it in terms of service level, matching the demand on our services. We’re going to add a fire station during this four-year cycle, so not only build a facility with capital funds, but also fund it with firefighters, so we have to hire firefighters to staff that fire station. That’s Station 11. It’s going to be out north of Barker, between Barker and Trent/Euclid area. It’s a rapidly-growing area, especially for commercial and industrial. Also, Liberty Lake is building out to the city line out there, really adding a lot of residential development out there, so we’ll build a fire station out there. On that same property, we’re going to build a new maintenance facility. We have a fleet now of over 60 vehicles and we service that out of a 25-year-old fleet maintenance facility building on Sullivan. That’s basically only two-and-a-half garage bays wide. Especially during inclement weather, we don’t have the space to service all those vehicles and keep them inside while they’re being serviced. Some of these vehicles take multiple days to actually go through their full service. So just to keep up to capacity, we need to rebuild a facility that’s larger and more functional for our fleet mechanics. That will be on that site also. We also have the normal replacement of fire engines, which we do every year as those get retired. Those fire engines, these days, are about $750,000 apiece. Ladder trucks are about $1.5 million. They’re on a regular replacement schedule as they grow old. We’ll spend money out of this levy cycle to continue that capital improvement program. Then we’re going to remodel one of our fire stations. These fire stations we build to last 50 years. This one’s halfway through its life cycle, coming up on 25 years old. We usually go in and put in new carpet, new countertops, kind of refresh them so they last another 25 years. That’s Station 5 out on Sullivan, which is next to our training and fleet maintenance facility out there.”

Collins says building the new fire station will allow his crews to get to the newly-developed areas nearby a few minutes faster than from existing stations. He expects that station would be built and ready to open by 2022 or 2023. The current voter-approved levy charges property owners $1.80 per thousand of valuation. The next two years would be $1.90. The rate would to go $1.97 for 2022, when the new station will be built, then decrease to $1.88 in 2023. The department has more about the levy here.

Credit Fire District 8

And we move to the fire district south of Spokane Valley, Fire District 8, which serves unincorporated areas of the valley, such as Glenrose, Mica and Ponderosa, as well as Hangman Hills, Moran Prairie and Valleyford. That district is also asking voters to approve a four-year maintenance and operations levy to supplement the property taxes it receives for firefighting and EMS services.

I asked Chief Tony Nielsen about the case he’s making for the levy as he talks to community groups.

Tony Nielsen: “I guess the first thing is this is not a new tax. It is a replacement for our current maintenance and operations levy that expires this year. We’re keeping the rate the same at 50 cents per one thousand dollars of assessed property value. It allows us, like the title says, to continue maintenance and operations of the fire district. It’s a huge part of our budget and it allows us to staff the fire stations with a paramedic in each station. Paramedics have quite a bit more training than the EMT training our other firefighters have. It’s pretty important when we see about 83% of our calls are medical calls in origin. It also helps us respond effectively when we’re getting what we call back-to-back calls or calls on top of each other, which isn’t uncommon. We have seen about a 54% increase in our call volume the last four years. Our district has grown, like many other areas in Spokane. We have another 2,000 people living within our borders. We’ve been able to improve our fire insurance rating with the maintenance and operations levy funds and we’d like to continue that. We’ve had folks come to us and tell us they’ve saved hundreds of dollars in their insurance premiums since we were able to achieve that better rating.”

Nielsen says the growth in his district is leading to more demand for medical services.

Tony Nielsen: “The population is aging and people are wanting to stay in their homes or even some of the assisted living facilities, we’re seeing quite a demand for that. And then, of course, as they build more assisted living facilities, memory care facilities, urgent care facilities, that drives our call volume. We also have a huge wild land urban interface risk in our district, 110 square miles, a lot of very expensive homes that are tucked into the urban interface and so brush fires are a big part of our response during the spring and summer months.”
You can read more here about the levy.

District 13 in Newman Lake also has a fire levy on the February 12 ballot.

The ballots have been mailed. They’re due back in a ballot drop box or at the county elections office by 8 pm on February 12 or they must be postmarked by that day.