Fire district facing tough budget with levy failure

The optimism Grays Harbor Fire District 5 managed to hold onto through a discouraging primary election turnout and an equally grim initial vote count last week has worn thin. The voters rejected the district’s bid to increase its levy lid, which would have brought an estimated $236,840 in revenue.

The frustration was hard to miss at the district’s commission meeting Monday night

“I know I’m frustrated with it,” Chief Dan Prater said. “In 20 years of being in the fire business, I’ve never seen a levy like this fail. Obviously there’s a problem but we’re having a hard time figuring out what the problem is.”

The levy lift would have allowed the district to raise its existing levy by eight cents per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of about $10 for a $150,000 home. After the levy failed in the August primary, Prater said the district thought the problem was a misunderstanding of what was asked or why it was needed. He said the district needed the money to make much-needed repairs on its vehicles and equipment, which have been neglected over the past several years.

On Monday, he thanked those who had helped raise awareness about the issues, whether it was talking with friends or writing letters to the editor. It didn’t seem to be enough, however; the ballot measure failed with 54.2 percent against it, a difference of 179 votes according to the latest results from the county Auditor.

The commissioners started reviewing a few of the most pressing issues Monday: two ambulances are out for repair, all five of the engines failed their pump test, and a large payment to Grays Harbor Energy, essentially a refund for over payment in taxes, will be due at the end of the month.

The ambulances aren’t a surprise — all the ambulances have more than 250,000 miles on them. There will be more down time to come, and the district can’t afford the $150,000 for a new one. Eventually, the commissioners noted, it may be more than the district can afford to make repairs.

The engines could be a bigger issue. The district is still waiting to find out exactly what’s wrong with the the water pumps, and until they do the engines will remain in service. Depending on the problem, the district may only be able to send firefighters to fight exterior fires until a repair can be made. With an unreliable water pump, Prater said he wouldn’t want to risk someone inside a burning building.

Bigger still is the refund payment due to Grays Harbor Energy as a result of its overpayment in property taxes and fees. Several local agencies owe the utility, and the district’s portion is $168,090. It will be withdrawn Nov. 30. All in all, the district will only carry over about $100,000 in reserves to next year. Prater said $125,000-150,000 would be a better number.

He also suggested they might look to Grays Harbor Energy for help — it has made payments and bought equipment for the district in the past.

“They’ve been good neighbors,” Prater said.

Another revenue loss comes from Fire District 12’s failure to pass its Emergency Services Levy. District 5 provides its ambulance service, but the contract depended on District 12’s levy.

The District 5 commissioners worried about what would happen to the people who relied on them in emergencies.

“What options do these people have?” Commissioner Dave Hauge asked Prater.

“Pick up the phone, call 911 and no one responds,” Prater said. “We’re going to go back to the ’70s.”

The District 12 EMS contract had been for $60,000 but may be cancelled without the revenue from that levy. Prater said the district was not obligated to continue ambulance service under state law.

Prater said he had met with district staff and volunteers to work on ideas for not only additional cuts, but ideas for raising revenue

“Everyone was blown away that the outcome was the way it was. They thought it was going to be close but they thought it was going to pass,” Prater said.

Some of the ideas included shutting down Internet in the stations, shutting down the fire prevention program and selling the demonstration burn trailer, and shutting down any other district activity that doesn’t fund itself, like providing first aid at the Grays Harbor County Fair.

The commissioners didn’t rule out another bond or levy in February, but that money wouldn’t come in until the following year.

One thing everyone agreed on was the need to understand why the levy failed and what issues residents have with the fire district and address them in order to move forward.

“You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I need to know why. If you voted no, why. If you have a question about the district, contact me,” Prater said.