Rejection of humble fire district ask is depressing, scary

No matter which “side” you were on, there was plenty to celebrate — and mourn — when the midterm election results started to shake out Tuesday night.

Locally, one of the most depressing outcomes didn’t get as much attention as the battle for Washington’s 3rd District seat in Congress or even the new form of government in Washougal. But we should all be saddened — and worried — by voters’ rejection of a humble levy lid lift request from the East County Fire & Rescue district.

If approved, the lid lift would have restored the district’s levy rates to the same rate approved in 2008, and made a very minimal dent in homeowners’ monthly bills.

For the owner of a $350,000 home, the extra cost was around $6 a month — less than a pumpkin spice latte and pastry.

That money would have benefitted a fire district already stretched extremely thin.

Not only have ECFR’s calls increased by about 52 percent over the past decade, the district also has to contend with fewer volunteers and rising costs.

“The cost of providing services is getting more expensive,” ECFR Chief Nick Swinhart told The Post-Record earlier this year. “I like to point out to people that, when we started our EMS levy here (in the late 1970s), the cost of an ambulance was about $35,000. Now, it’s over $200,000. But the EMS levy was 25 cents per $1,000 and now it’s 35 cents per $1,000.”

While property values have climbed in the fire district since 2008, the ECFR fire levy has declined, limiting revenue to roughly the same amount each year.

ECFR Deputy Chief Mike Carnes said his district has been operating under a strict budget for many years, passed every state audit and tried to avoid reaching out to taxpayers for more money.

“We have done everything possible to delay the need for a fire levy lid lift. However, call volumes have increased to the point that this is our only recourse,” Carnes told The Post-Record in August.

As of this newspaper’s print deadline, 2,118 voters — 53.77 percent — had rejected the fire district’s levy lid lift request.

We hope those voters will think long and hard about what their vote actually means for themselves and their neighbors.

The ECFR district covers 60 square miles and includes 10,000 people in its service area. The majority of calls coming in to the fire district are not actually fire-related. ECFR firefighters respond to medical emergencies, traffic accidents and a host of other emergency calls.

With voters’ rejection of the levy lid lift, fire district officials will need to greatly reduce expenses, and may be forced to close Station 94, a smaller station located on Southeast 352nd Avenue in Washougal that serves a large swath of ECFR land north of Washougal — land that is not easy to access from the district’s main Station 91, thanks to just two Washougal River crossing points.

Without a 24/7 staff at Station 94, response times to the area would increase to as much as 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the area where the call was coming from.

“And that’s with lights and sirens on,” Carnes said.

How much is it worth to you to avoid waiting 20 to 25 minutes for help to arrive after you’ve crashed your car in rural Washougal? Is it worth $6 a month?

We thought the levy lid lift was a no-brainer, especially for folks who live outside the urban boundaries, in homes that are appreciating in value.

The fact that these voters have rejected their fire district’s request for a very subtle “raise” — after 10 years of tightening the district’s belt until it can no longer be tightened — is depressing and more than a little bit scary.