Cowlitz County Fire District 6 has begun looking at the possibility of proposing an EMS levy to voters during the November election amid projections of financial distress for the district’s future.
Based in Castle Rock, district commissioners met July 14 during their regular meeting to discuss proposing a property tax of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value, intended to help keep the agency from folding.
“We’re doing what we can with the circumstances that we have,” said Interim Chief Kurt Stich of the district’s resources, describing how efforts by volunteers, both in emergency responses and the maintenance of equipment, have gone above and beyond what he has seen of other districts in Washington. “There is not another organization in this state that operates the way we do with the funding that we currently have.”
Stich said the district’s budget, which totals around $600,000 annually, currently allows for just basic operations and cannot support additional needs such as new vehicles and equipment, specialized training, additional personnel, or even a fulltime chief.
“We’re under-funded in critical areas,” he said. “One untimely event—one engine, one anything—and our beginning fund balance is gone and we are in jeopardy of not opening the doors.”
Stich said the proposal for an EMS levy would be the first such tax, according to his research, ever imposed for District 6, adding officials arrived at the figure of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value after seeking the input of Roger Ferris, president of the Washington Fire Commissioners Association.
Stich clarified the $1 figure was a “starting point” and District 6 commissioners have until Aug. 5 to submit a specific proposal to the county to be placed on the November ballot, stating they will be considering an amount that would both help the district survive while not being too high in the eyes of the voters.
Stich said, if approved, a $1 levy would provide the district with around $300,000 more per year, which he said would not move the district as far forward as he would like, in regard to investing in newer equipment and adequate staffing, but would keep the district away from possible bankruptcy.
“We’re trying to survive,” he said of the levy proposal, stating the options before District 6, should they be forced to close down, would include joining Cowlitz County Fire District 2, in the Longview and Kelso areas, whose constituents currently pay an EMS levy rate of $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Also discussed by commissioners was the possibility of charging for EMS transportation within Toutle’s Cowlitz County Fire District 3, as the district’s inability to provide in-kind services constitutes a gifting of public funds, according to Stich.
He explained, because of District 3’s lack of a transportation license from the State Department of Health due to their lack of adequate EMT staffing, District 6 has historically provided ambulance transportation services at no charge to District 3. Stich told commissioners this falls under the state’s ban against gifting of public resources, as District 3 is unable to provide mutual aid, and commissioners voted to draft a letter to District 3 inviting their commissioners to the Aug. 11 meeting of District 6 to discuss a possible fee for services.
“Our goal would be to have them work with us,” said Stich, who did not indicate present transportation services to Toutle are to cease in the meantime.
The next meeting for District 6, during which time they are expected to approve a levy rate to be considered during the November election, is scheduled for July 28 at 3:30 p.m. in the Castle Rock Fire Hall. Those with questions or in need of accommodations may call (360) 274-4413.