Levy Lid Lift

 

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North Whatcom Fire & Rescue (NWFR), also known as Whatcom County Fire District 21, provides fire and emergency medical services and transport to approximately 33,800 residents, businesses and properties within its service area of 156 square miles. 77 dedicated fire fighters/emergency medical technicians, volunteers and administrative staff work out of the three fire stations operating in the district.

The growing NWFR district has seen a significant increase in service calls over the last several years. In 2020, the agency responded to 3,679 calls for service—over 52% more than in 2011 (2,405 calls). NWFR had fewer service calls in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2019 call total was 3983, which is a 65% call increase since 2011. Even with careful resource management and (self-imposed) firefighter salary reductions, this increased demand is straining NWFR’s ability to maintain existing service levels.

Our service territory covers unincorporated Whatcom County north of Bellingham to the Canadian border and around the City of Lynden; the City of Blaine; and the communities of Birch Bay, Semiahmoo, Custer, Delta, Northwood, Wiser Lake, and Laurel.

NWFR FIRE LEVY LID LIFT | FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

PROPOSITION 2021-09 | Fire Levy Lid Lift

Necessary to maintain current fire and emergency medical services

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

TIME MATTERS in an emergency—a heart attack, a house fire, a car accident. How fast fire and emergency medical help arrive at the scene plays a significant role in minimizing property damage and improving patient survival rates.

Whatcom County Fire District 21 cannot maintain current response times and service levels with existing funds so the District is going back to voters with Proposition 2021-9, at the November 2 general election. All funds go directly to the Fire District and can only be used for fire protection and basic life support medical services in our District. Funds do not go to Whatcom County.

The measure failed at the August primary, falling 676 votes short. The additional funding under Prop. 2021-9 is critical if residents and businesses want current fire and emergency medical service levels and response times continued. If the measure fails, response times will be slower.

The following provides information about Fire District 21: our services, how they are provided and funded, and what Prop. 2021-9 will mean for residents and businesses.

1.Who is Whatcom County Fire District 21?

Fire District 21 is a separate municipal government, formed December 7, 2006, after voters approved the merger of Whatcom County Fire Protection District 3 and Whatcom County Fire Protection District 13.   Fire District 21 now operates as North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR).

In 2011, NWFR and adjacent Whatcom County Fire District 4 agreed to consolidate operations. For the last 10 years, District 4 has paid NWFR to provide all fire protection and basic life support services to District 4. This partnership has served both agencies well because pooling resources (crews, equipment, etc.) is more efficient for both districts than operating separately.

NWFR and District 4 together serve nearly 44,000 residents across a diverse and expansive 182 square mile territory. We staff four fire stations 24/7, three of them a located in NWFR’s jurisdiction. To serve our rural areas with no municipal water supply, we also have five additional unstaffed locations where we park water tenders, and we rely on incredible volunteers to drive those tenders to bring water to rural fires.

2.What is a Levy Lid Lift?

A “levy lid lift” is a voter-approved action to increase property tax collection by more than the 1% per year “lid” put in place by Initiative 747 in 2001. Specifically, Initiative 747 limits the amount of property tax a jurisdiction may collect to one percent (1%) more per year plus the value of new construction. The limit remains regardless of inflation or population growth or increased demand for service. The only way to exceed that “lid” is with voter consent, requiring simple majority (50% +1) voter approval.

Both NWFR and District 4 are asking voters to approve fire levy lid lifts to the same level—$1.45 per $1,000 of assessed value—at the November election. 

3.How are fire and emergency services funded today?

NWFR’s services are primarily funded by a voter-approved property tax levy. This fire levy has not been increased by voters in 12 years. In 2021, NWFR’s total tax levy rate is $1.15 per $1,000 of assessed value. The highest allowed rate is $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation but we are asking for $1.45 per $1,000 assessed valuation, which is what we need to maintain current service levels and response times.

4.Why is Prop. 2021-09: Fire Levy Lid Lift necessary?

We are at a financial crossroads. After years of careful budget management, we have simply reached the end of our ability to maintain service levels with existing funds. Additional funding is necessary if residents and businesses want current fire and emergency medical service levels and response times continued.  Our 911 calls have increased 71% since 2010 in the combined NWFR/District 4 service area. 

We can no longer continue to maintain response times and service levels for our residents and businesses without additional funds.

Below are facts—and challenges we face—related to the fire and emergency medical services we provide:

911 calls are increasing

  • In District 21 alone, we have seen a 52% increase in annual 911 calls since 2011.
  • In the combined NWFR / District 4 service area, calls for service (including auto aid calls into other jurisdictions) have increased 71% since 2010.

Firefighters/Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)

  • Three firefighters (all trained in emergency medical response) are on duty at all times at each station.
  • Three is the minimum needed to respond to a 911 call, and four firefighters must be on-site in order for any personnel to enter a burning building (which means waiting for command staff or firefighters from another fire station).
  • The fire chief is on call 365 days per year, 24/7 to serve as command staff on major incidents.

Emergency Medical Services

  • We provide basic life support, and like all Whatcom County Fire Districts, we rely on the County Emergency Medical Service for response to life-threatening events.
  • The County staffs two medic units to cover the entire county.
  • For non-life-threatening medical injuries and illnesses, we transport patients to the hospital in our aid cars.

Vehicles

  • Nearly our entire fleet of fire vehicles is aged beyond their useful lives based on both fire service and industry standards, and we simply do not have the funds to replace them. All our water tenders and one of our ladder vehicles are overdue for replacement, and all our fire engines should be in backup or reserve status—but they are needed for front line use. Similarly, all but three of our ambulances are past due for replacement.
    • The average age of our water tenders—our only source of water to put out fires in rural areas—is 27 years.
    • Our ambulances on average are over 10 years old.
    • Our ladder trucks are on average 19 years old.
    • Other fire engines are on average 15 years old.
  • Older vehicles are less reliable and break down more frequently, which can delay response times, and increases maintenance expenses.
  • Because we don’t have funds to replace old vehicles, we are paying more to repair some of these vehicles than they are worth.

Response Times

  • Our staffed stations are on average nearly 15 miles apart. Average response times are currently 8.5 minutes.
  • Travel times are extensive across our service territory. As firefighters/EMTs are dispatched to more 911 calls (and more calls come in at the same time), response times increase.
  • When multiple 911 calls come into a station (which happens regularly), firefighters/EMTs must be deployed from another station, leaving that service area short-staffed.

Mutual Aid

  • Unlike other fire districts, we cannot depend on mutual aid from other service providers in the northern part of our district, because we are bounded by the Canadian border and the Pacific Ocean.

Funding

  • Current funding is insufficient to maintain existing services levels, replace our aging vehicles and equipment, and address unforeseen challenges—such as complete failure of a fire engine, or problems at our aging fire stations.
  • Our firefighters have voluntarily given up wage increases in recent years to preserve jobs.

The time to address these challenges is now if voters want to maintain current response times and service levels.

5. What will Prop. 2021-09: Fire Levy Lid Lift pay for?

We need the levy lid lift to maintain service levels and response times, and improve response reliability as our population and 911 calls continue to grow each year. If the measure is approved, NWFR and its service partner District 4 intend to use funds to:

  • Maintain current services levels and response times: Current funding isn’t sufficient. Without additional funding, services levels and response times will worsen.
  • Add firefighters: to meet increased and more complex service demands including:
    • Four firefighters to staff a peak-hour transport unit: Responding to the significant increase in 911 calls, additional personnel will increase our ability to transport residents during peak times and when we are receiving multiple calls.
    • Train one shift commander per 24-hour shift to manage complex fire and medical incidents. Additional training and expertise is needed to manage responses involving multiple crews, which are common. These newly promoted shift commanders (also called “battalion chiefs”) will respond to incidents along with our three-person crews.
    • Four firefighters to fill positions vacated by newly-trained shift commanders: Ensuring a full crew of well-prepared firefighters ready to respond safely and effectively to every type of incident.
  • Replace obsolete fire engines, a ladder truck, water tenders (to bring water to rural areas not served by municipal water systems), and firefighter equipment: Most of our vehicles which are critical for 911 response have significantly exceeded their planned useful lives. We need to replace obsolete vehicles and other life-saving equipment used by firefighters every day in the field.

6. What will Prop. 2021-09: Fire Levy Lid Lift cost me?

If Proposition 2021-9 is approved, the net result is an additional property tax of $0.30 per $1,000 of assessed value. This will cost the owner of a home assessed at $400,000 an additional $10 per month beginning in 2022.

The measure will raise NWFR’s regular property tax levy to $1.45 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2021, up from its current $1.15 per $1,000 assessed value.

Assessed property value Annual current cost of NWFR levy: rate of $1.15/$1,000 of assessed value Annual cost at proposed levy rate of $1.45/$1,000 of assessed value Increased cost in 2022 if the fire levy lid lift is approved
$400,000 $460.00 $580.00 $120.00/year or $10.00/month
$600,000 $690.00 $870.00 $180.00/year or $15.00/month

Standard exemptions apply, including low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

District 4 is also seeking a fire levy lid lift to this same $1.45 per $1,000 level, on the November ballot.

7.How is Prop. 2021-09: Fire Levy Lid Lift - approved?

Approval of the fire levy lid lift requires a “yes” vote from a simple majority (50 percent + 1) of NWFR voters at the November 2 election.

8.What happens if Prop. 2021-09: Fire Levy Lid Lift is not approved?

Put simply, current fire and emergency medical services levels and response times cannot be maintained.

  • Persons needing medical aid may wait longer for emergency help to arrive. We will not be able to staff the aid car proposed to help manage the increased calls we have experienced in the last decade.
  • Our old vehicles won’t be replaced. Our fleet of fire trucks, tenders (bringing water to fire events in rural areas not served by municipal water systems), and aid cars already past their retirement dates, will remain in service. If a vehicle suddenly goes out of service, as is happening more and more frequently, we need to find a backup. This impacts our response time to fire and aid calls. We are already spending more to repair some vehicles than their replacement value because we do not have the necessary funds to replace them.
  • Reliability at risk. We do not have funds to support unexpected vehicle, equipment, or building system failures at our fire stations. This could impact our response time to fire and medical aid calls.
  • Our partnership with District 4 will be in jeopardy. This partnership helps both NWFR and District 4 provide service at a lower cost than would otherwise be possible if we operated as two separate agencies. If NWFR voters reject the levy lid lift proposition, it will jeopardize our ability to maintain this efficient partnership.
  • Together, the NWFR and District 4 fire levy lid lifts will stabilize our operations funding and maintain service levels and response times. The fire levy lid lifts will not address all of our needs—such as major capital investments at our fire stations—but preserving current service levels and operational effectiveness is the immediate crisis and priority.

9. If the levy does not pass, and if service levels and response times do get worse, could I see an increase in my homeowners’ insurance premium?

  • Here’s how it works:

The Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB) provides data on fire-related property risk to insurance companies.  From their website at https://www1.wsrb.com/

“WSRB Role in Insurance

We started by providing objective data on fire-related property risk and have expanded to cover multiple risk factors to meet the industry’s evolving needs. WSRB helps insurers and their customers. Insurers can more efficiently and effectively evaluate risk, and their policyholders feel confident that insurance rates are fair and non-discriminatory. WSRB is an independent, not-for-profit, public service organization serving Washington state.”

This means that WSRB uses multiple criteria, including station location, distance between stations, vehicle type and age, and staffing as criteria for “scoring” a district.  If our protection class changes from a 5, one possible effect of downgrading classes is that your homeowners’ insurance premium might go up.

We saw this result play out in District 4’s area, where they had a portion of the district drop from a 6 rating to a 9 rating.  Chief Van der Veen started getting calls from insurance agents and underwriters wondering why their customers’ rates were doubling.  When Chief Van der Veen contacted the WSRB, they told him it was because of the change in rating, and short of building a fire station and putting a 3000-gallon tender in it, there was nothing District 4 could do to change the rating.

District 21’s Board Chairman recently contacted his insurance carrier to ask about this scenario for his Birch Bay home.  His carrier noted the following increases were possible:

  • Protection Class 5 to Protection Class 6 – an increase of $142/year
  • Protection Class 5 to Protection Class 7 – an increase of $187/year
  • Protection Class 5 to Protection Class 8 – an increase of $364/year

Of course, each voter’s situation will be different, and the results above are unique to this Birch Bay house.  However, we wanted to share this information with you in the spirit of transparency.  You can vote on your levy rate, but you can’t vote on your insurance rate.

10. How can I learn more about Prop.2021-09, the fire levy lid lift?

 For more information please call 360-318-9933 or email: jvanderveen@nwfrs.com.

Resolution Link: Resolution 2021-04

November Election:

General Election
August 3, 2021 Resolution deadline
October 13, 2021 Voting Center open, ballot packets mailed, drop boxes open
October 25, 2021 Online and mail registration deadline

New registrations and changes to registration must be done in person
November 2, 2021 General Election Day

Sample ballot

Register to vote or update registration in-person at the Voting Center before 8:00 pm
Ballot Drop Boxes close at 8:00 pm
November 4, 2021 Audit of results (hand count)
November 23, 2021 Certification of Election