Tim Fuller, chair of the Orcas Board of Fire Commissioners, presiding over the fire district’s Nov. 13 special budget meeting, held up the district’s budget document, the product of nearly two years of work.
For three of the five sitting directors who were voted out of office just six days earlier, this meeting was their last. For all, their terms of service had been characterized by what Susan Martin, president of the League of Women Voters of the San Juans, had openly called “turmoil.”
Fuller forged ahead.
“All in favor, say ‘aye’,” he said. And, expressing some conviction, even more relief, and a dollop of resignation, they all voted “aye.” A budget was approved.
Drafting budgets is typically a mundane series of spreadsheet exercises driven by the analytics of yesterday and forecasting for tomorrow. The budgets are intended to guide how to pay for the Orcas Island Fire and Rescue to provide superior service. Response time in the island community is measured in minutes.
But clashing personalities have dominated recent budget conversations. As one island resident said of the board on social media, “I would not give these bums another dime.”
The department had determined it needed more than a few dimes, but paying for the proposed budget was not approved by voters.
Doing the math
The fire department is funded annually through a portion of property taxes — a levy — that is currently set at a voter-approved annual rate of $1.05 per $1,000 of assessed value. A property owner with an assessed value of $500,000 would owe a tax of $525. The department’s total budget is likewise calculated by applying the $1.05 levy to islandwide valuation data of approximately $4 billion.
Over 20 years ago, prolific antitax activist Tim Eyman proposed and voters approved tax constraint measure Initiative 747 which limited increases for levy-dependent entities like the Orcas Fire Department to 1% annually. Even as the island’s total real estate valuation rose over time, the department could never get more than a 1% raise.
Ten years ago, the $1.05 levy funded the department at service levels then appropriate for the needs of the community.
Today, that same $1.05 levy rate leaves the department underfunded and falling behind inflation.
According to Annie Sieger, the board’s consulting financial analyst, if one were to reverse-engineer the levy formula starting with 2023 revenues of $2,383,992 available under the current levy system, and place that number opposite the total of the island’s assessed valuations of over $4 billion, one can then solve for the levy rate. The implied levy rate then becomes just $.58 per $1,000 instead of $1.05.
In other words, the hypothetical $500,000 home-owning taxpayer today is paying only $290, not $525.
Sieger estimates the cumulative shortfall would mushroom to $22 million in the next 10 years if nothing were to change, including the service level provided by the department and the lid of $1.05 on the current levy rate.
According to Sieger, the department receives about $2.5 million, but needs to spend about $3.3 million, resulting in a shortfall of over $723,000. She calls this the “levy cliff.”
Sieger told the board that a new levy — a modest levy lid lift — from $1.05 to $1.06 would fund the department at $4.3 million, allow for modest growth under the I-747 constraint, and eliminate the shortfall. However, because of I-747, residents are currently paying only $.58. Raising the levy to $1.06 lifts the hypothetical tax bill from $290 to $530, or an eye-popping 82.7%.
One proposal, two defeats
In May of this year, Fuller and the board began the arduous and politically fraught task of raising taxes. They asked voters to support the lift in the August primary.
“Vote NO,” cried community voices, seemingly driven as much by the sticker shock as by the voices saying “not another dime for those bums.”
And “no” they voted. The board’s levy lid lift was defeated — twice — in the primary and again in the November general elections. In the general, the no vote was 74 %.
“Orcas Island Fire and Rescue is committed to continuing to serve the community to the best of our ability with the resources available to us,” said Holly vanSchaick, who serves as Orcas Island’s first-ever female chief. Despite the lopsided vote, she invited the community “to work with us towards a positive future that stays focused on our goals, embodies our mutual purpose, and acknowledges the essence of teamwork.”
… and two budgets
Well before the November election, Fuller set the budget process on a dual track, asking for two 2024 budgets to be brought before the full board — one assuming passage of the levy and another $2.6 million “austerity” budget, assuming the levy failed.
“We had an alternate budget prepared in the event that the levy failed,” he announced at the Nov. 13 budget approval meeting, adding that even if they could pass a reconfigured levy in November of 2024, new money would not arrive until April of 2025.
The austerity budget calls for modest cuts in EMT service and certain deferred capital expenditures, no growth and no provision for inflation.
Outgoing commissioner Nick Negulescu voted yes for the austerity budget but complained, “I don’t live in a fantasy realm where we can magically — and in good conscience — send the fire department into bankruptcy.”
“[T]he public has spoken, twice!” he said. “We are heading over the levy cliff … It means draconian budget cuts because the public has chosen to defer a payment on the fire department … and the direct result is that the department has been shortchanged and is facing a budget shortfall.”
Filling multiple roles
Former paramedic and long-term veteran of the department Patrick Shepler, who now lives in Florida, spoke of feeling “sad” about budget developments, and suggested that salary reductions for the chief and vice chief could offset the austerity budget’s cuts to the EMT head count.
But vanSchaick’s salary and that of the vice chief reflect that they both already do double duty as EMTs. In vanSchaick’s case, it’s triple as she is also a qualified paramedic. In principle, cutting her salary would devalue her paramedic service, leaving the department in the same impoverished state.
vanSchaick fears for the emergence of a “circular firing squad” as underfunding the department stresses the staff, which lowers morale, in turn leading to public disappointment with service and ultimate distrust of the department.
Some department staff already augment their service with additional volunteer work. Lt. Kat Barnard holds multiple roles as firefighter, EMT and public information officer. To respond to public record requests, she clocks out as lieutenant and clocks back in as a volunteer.
“This is what we do,” said vanSchaick. “We help our people through good times and bad — ‘Neighbors Serving Neighbors.’ I love the work.”
Headed for a do-over
John W. Early, who previously served on the board and had recently joined the chorus of critics said, “I owe all an apology. Some of us on Orcas jumped to conclusions.”
The new members all ran on the promise of transparency and a do-over of the levy. They take their seats on Nov. 28 and will hold their first organizational meeting on or about Nov. 30. Their first task will be to establish trust throughout the community, and then to demonstrate transparency and begin to move forward.
With three newly-elected commissioners, island resident Robert Dashiell said he hopes that the Orcas community can move forward and craft a rational plan to finance its fire department. “I think the new commissioners will meet your gold standard,” said Dashiell, who frequently attends meetings and speaks his mind. “It’s never easy to predict what will happen.”
For now, the Orcas voters have issued their marching orders: run the department at the required austerity standard while figuring out a 2024 levy that the Orcas community will accept.
— Reported by Toby Cooper