Fire chiefs: We still need funds

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TESS FREEMAN/Press File Northern Lakes firefighter Bill Clifford hoses down the area above the garage of a house on East Avon Circle in Hayden in this 2015 photo. The district is reviewing its funding options after a permanent override levy proposal last month did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority voter approval to pass.

Two fire chiefs in northern Kootenai County who both had levy override proposals turned back at the polls last month say their needs amid the area’s rapid growth haven't changed, so measures in the near future are possible.

A permanent levy override proposal in Northern Lakes, which serves about 45,000 year-round residents in Hayden, Rathdrum, Garwood and Hayden Lake, received 65.9 percent approval.

In the Timberlake district, which serves about 8,900 residents in Athol, Bayview, Chilco and the surrounding areas, 58.7 percent of the voters approved.

Districts need 66.67 percent — a super-majority — for such proposals to pass.

Districts can permanently increase their levy limit by successfully voting an override.

Northern Lakes Chief Pat Riley said the need to increase the annual operational budget increased by the day.

"The need to add personnel and increase our budget more than the allowable 3 percent becomes greater every day. We are evaluating our current operations as well as plans for having another levy election, but no decision has been made.

"If we do decide to try again, I feel strongly that a diverse citizens advisory committee needs to be formed and input from our external stakeholders is vital to future success. I think our biggest takeaway is that the public is telling us what level of service they are willing to pay for, but possibly expecting more than what they are currently getting."

Timberlake Chief Bill Steele said the board and staff in that district will meet on June 18 to discuss the levy aftermath and a future plan.

"I think the district made a good effort to get the word out about the need for levy," he said. "What appeared to be lacking was enough citizen input and involvement. I believe that a failed levy, our first permanent override request since being formed in 1999, was a success in that a majority of our citizens do support the district and understand the needs of the levy."

Both districts were reminded about the big difference between gaining a simple majority vote and the supermajority needed for the proposals to pass.

Tim Hurst, chief deputy for the Idaho Secretary of State, said legislation is often brought forward by taxing districts to lower the super majority to 55 or 60 percent.

"But it never goes anywhere," he said. "The Legislature wants to make sure the people really want to permanently increase their taxes — probably because the turnout is typically low."

Northern Lakes' levy proposal of $850,000 per year would have added add six firefighter/EMTs so that a third facility in the district, at the corner of Garwood and Hudlow roads, could have been be staffed.

The district estimates that, based on today's property values, the property tax increase would have been $41.40 per year ­­— which works out to $3.45 per month — for the owner of a $200,000 home.

Northern Lakes responded to 5,052 calls for service last year. With a total annual budget of $6.3 million, the average cost per call was $1,250.

"After our first full year as a newly consolidated fire district in 2002 we responded to a total 1,472 incidents which represents a nearly 243 percent increase in our responses," Riley said. "We responded with a minimum of seven personnel in 2002 and only have increased to a minimum of nine personnel in 2019.

"With this failed levy proposal now behind us, the mental stresses and physical rigors will continue to increase for our sworn personnel."

Riley said that, contrary to popular belief, growth does not pay for itself. He said the district collected $116,000 from new development in fiscal 2018.

"We spend those funds responsibly by buying equipment and necessary safety tools to perform our duties," he said. "They are neither guaranteed nor stable and not sufficient to hire personnel. We have planned and budgeted for modifying a building and making it a fire station without asking for the public’s help.

"We need the public’s help in the form of an override levy in order to hire the additional personnel to staff the new station."

Timberlake's levy proposal of up to $290,000 would have increased the taxes of patrons living in a $200,000 home an estimated $5 per month, according to district officials.

The funds would have been used to hire two firefighters, expedite the replacement process for three engines and facility upgrades that includes adding living space at the Bayview station, improving a training room and a station roof repair.

Timberlake responded to 930 calls in 2018 with a budget of $1.2 million, making the cost per call $1,290. The budget also covers costs such as administration, training, equipment, facilities maintenance, insurance and utilities in addition to responses.

"The need for the additional funds and the continued growth challenges are not going away," Steele said. "We will continue to find ways to meet the increasing demands for services and will continue to respond as we have resources to do so.

"The board is the authority to make the decision for another levy election or not and I think our citizens need to get involved and help drive the decision. We are all in this together from the very minor incident to the next Cape Horn-type event."

The May proposal was the first time in Timberlake's 20-year history that it asked for a levy override.

Two such Northern Lakes proposals failed in 2012 with voter approval percentages of 29.4 and 34.3 percent. Another proposal failed last year with 59.8 percent approval.

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