Orcas Island Fire and Rescue levy passes on third try - Salish Current
April 25, 2024
Orcas Island Fire and Rescue levy passes on third try
Toby Cooper

Backers of a tax levy to fund Orcas Island Fire and Rescue say they are grateful for voter support, but still face unanswered questions about whether the increase will fully meet the community’s needs. (OIFR)

April 25, 2024
Orcas Island Fire and Rescue levy passes on third try
Toby Cooper

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Third time’s a charm: 30% of eligible voters voted by April 23 to ensure passage by 68%.

Following two resounding defeats at the ballot box in 2023, Orcas Island’s Fire and Rescue district (OIFR) won overwhelming approval to impose a special tax levy measure to fund fire and rescue operations, including safety and protective services, for the coming five years. 

As of Tuesday night, the measure was supported by 68%t of the island’s eligible voters, according to the San Juan County Auditor’s office. Voter turnout was 1,415 of 4,707 registered voters, or 30%.

A similar levy lid lift measure — carrying a higher incremental tax increase and lacking the five-year sunset provision of the new law — was defeated twice in 2023, during the August primary and November general elections. 

The language approved by voters on Tuesday authorizes a regular property tax levy of $0.77 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Levies are limited by Initiative 747 to increases of 1% annually, regardless of amounts collected by the tax.

The current tax levy rate is $0.53.

In preparing the case for the public vote, Richard Davis, attorney for the district, wrote that approval of the levy would “result in a levy amount estimated to be approximately $3.645 million.” The final levy amount will be calculated based on assessed property values in the current year. 

“This levy is expected to allow the district to maintain staffing and existing levels of service while maintaining a stable reserve,” he wrote.

Fire commissioner Kate Hanson, who campaigned last year on the need to review the fire department’s budget structure and the desirability of segregating operational from capital budget expenditures, said she was “very grateful for the community’s support of our department and this levy lid lift,” and looks forward to the “next phase of work and planning to support our continued operations.”

Walking a tightrope

OIFR, however, continues to walk a financial tightrope. Following the 2023 election defeat, Hanson and fire commissioners crafted an austerity budget to sustain department operations at baseline levels until a new levy lid lift could be approved for collection in 2025.

“We signed a new memorandum of understanding with the union to prevent layoffs,” she said. “A new budget is now in formation, but we have yet to determine if we can make changes to the current year’s emergency budget.”

Chief Holly vanSchaick echoed Hanson’s gratitude and cautious optimism by noting that “the approved levy lid lift will support immediate operational needs and allow department administration and the commissioners to refocus on the next step, which involves a detailed plan for apparatus refurbishment and replacement.”

Clark Cundy, a member of OIFR’s Concerned Citizen’s Group and co-author of “Arguments For” in the county’s voter pamphlet wrote, “When passed, this new levy will provide the necessary resources to continue meeting our island’s needs for critical life-saving assistance, as well as for personal and property safety services.”

Following the vote, Cundy applauded the Orcas community for resolving the levy issue and supporting OIFR’s needs. “Thank you for your trust and confidence,” he said. “Together we can build a safer and stronger Orcas Fire Department for all.” 

Tuesday’s vote leaves unanswered the question of whether the approved levy measure fully meets the community’s needs for fire and rescue services. Both Hansen and vanSchaick applaud the vote, but are watching capital needs that the austerity budget does not address. A budget based on the new levy is not finalized.

In addition, the 1% constraint of Initiative 747 remains in place.

As we move forward,” Cundy said, “it is crucial that we all focus on real fiscal work that needs to be done to ensure that every dollar from the Operations Levy tax goes as far as possible. This means implementing cost-saving measures, prioritizing fiscal planning strategies, and training to maximize the impact of our resources.”

The April 23 voter’s pamphlet contained a section for “Arguments Against,” stating simply, “No information submitted.”

— By Toby Cooper

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