Fire departments deeply affected by tough times

Fire chiefs are a rare breed . They’re proactive problem solvers, protective of their crews and, above all, loyal to the communities they serve. Unfortunately, some situations are beyond their control. This is certainly the case with the current financial situation for Poulsbo Fire Chief Dan Olson and North Kitsap Fire & Rescue Chief Dan Smith.

Both fire departments are autonomous agencies, with a huge chunk of their funding derived from property taxes and voter-approved levies. The property estate tax money the departments received is based on a formula reliant on property value. When values are steady and/or rising, it’s nothing but good times ahead. When home values decline? Therein lies the problem.

The Kitsap County real estate market is circling the drain — estimates from the Kitsap County Assessor’s Office show a projected decline for county home values of 12 percent in 2010 and an additional 10 percent in 2011. In stable economic times, the levy tax rate would increase to ensure a steady funding source for the departments. But these are not steady economic times. Both departments’ levy rates have nearly hit their ceiling.

Over the next couple of years, both departments will likely see some drastic financial cuts. They’ve already made sacrifices they never dreamed necessary: not filling positions after workers retire, putting off purchasing new equipment and the like. More budget cuts — and possible layoffs — lie ahead.

What it comes down to is, yes, times are tough all over. But when fire departments have to scrimp and pinch, that affects public safety. There will be fewer firefighter/paramedics to respond to medical emergencies, and response times may lengthen. In their line of work, seconds count.

For nearly a year, we’ve been surrounded with a dark economic cloud and the message that the worst is yet to come. Well, this is where it begins.

It would be great if there were a silver lining or even a teaching point in this fiscal mess. But there isn’t.

Some things are just outside anyone’s control.

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