Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart may be facing his biggest challenge to date, in selling Camas voters on a proposal to increase the current emergency services levy.
As reported in the April 3 Post-Record, the Camas City Council voted unanimously to send the EMS levy rate increase to the Aug. 7 ballot. If approved, the six-year levy would raise the current rate from 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to 46 cents. That means starting in 2013 the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $138 a year toward the Camas EMS fund — a $33 increase.
As big of a challenge as selling a tax increase during a recession might seem, Swinhart has a couple of things working in his favor. One, most citizens in cities like Camas want top quality EMS services. And two, Swinhart has quickly become a highly regarded chief in his short time in Camas. His skills in bringing people together for the common good have already become apparent.
But for Swinhart and others making the pitch to Camas voters for the levy, there is something else they’ll need to give high priority to. And that’s information. Data, numbers, details, call it what you will. Camas voters are going to want to know what all the numbers mean and why a levy rate increase is “unavoidable,” according to Swinhart.
So far we’ve heard partial explanations about why the EMS fund has struggled and why keeping it at the current level would put the fund in the red by $2.9 million by 2018.
A decrease in assessed property values is the primary reason. Also, call volume has increased by 336 percent since 1979, while the levy rate has increased just 40 percent during that time.
However, what we haven’t heard much of is what new belt tightening measures could be taken to ease the levy hit to Camas taxpayers. Granted, the trial consolidation with Washougal has achieved some efficiencies. Swinhart and the campaign team would be wise to talk those savings up.
But what about implementing other cuts within the department to save money, like those used routinely by private sector businesses? Could training programs or administrative positions be cut back or put on hold? What would be the impact of not spending money on new equipment, or putting in place a hiring freeze? Could salary or overtime concessions be part of the answer to the fund shortfall?
Ultimately, it might come down to one hard question. Would Camas voters be willing to have a lower level of EMS service for the same taxes they are paying now, instead of a tax increase?
Camas voters have an opportunity to hear Chief Swinhart explain the levy rate increase proposal today at 7 p.m., at the Grass Valley Fire Station. There will be other meetings held in the coming weeks as well, so citizens can become educated on the options.
These meetings can be golden opportunities for the chief and the city to give Camas citizens a true picture of the EMS funding issue and for Camas citizens to get the information they need to decide whether to support the levy increase.