With the primary election looming on Aug. 17, the department hopes voters re-authorize a 10-year EMS levy of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to keep its medic service afloat.
Last year’s levy lid lift failure forced the department to leave open a firefighter position and make cuts to how it staffs stations and overtime pay. A failure this time around would be much worse, Lique said.
A levy failure in August and November would strip the department of more than $1 million in taxes and trigger layoffs of 14 staff members, including nine paramedics. That’s 50 percent of the department’s career staffers, a reduction that could spell the end of the department’s paramedic service.
Current staffing already is struggling, with only the guarantee of one staffed paramedic car per shift.
If the EMS levy fails to garner the required 60 percent of the vote, Lique said it would be disastrous.
“Out the window,” he said. “We could not guarantee ALS (advanced life support) or guarantee a paramedic will be on duty.”
Even mutual aid with neighboring departments could be in jeopardy. Lique said that one department recently delivered a written letter to the KPFD stating that its citizens won’t subsidize a department that can’t even provide aid for itself. Private ambulance services also have balked at the idea of contracting with the department because of a lack of calls.
Lique said that in several conversations with private ambulance companies, they could not even guarantee an ambulance within 10 miles of the Narrows bridges.
Current EMS collection is 48.5 cents per $1,000, although the most recent EMS levy, approved in 2000, was at 50 cents per $1,000.
And while the levy would excise 1.5 cents more than the current rate, Lique said that, because property values have dropped in the area, the rate at his home actually has him paying about $15 less each year than it would at the 50-cent collection rate.
If voters do approve the levy, they can expect a continuation of current service levels.
“If the levy passes, we’re hoping to maintain status quo,” Lique said.
Resistance from within
Like past levy issues, the biggest resistance has come from a fire board commissioner.
Allen Yanity, who is in his fifth year of a six-year term and has been the only commissioner to stand against recent levies, said he won’t support a fire or EMS levy until the department cleans up what he perceives as a “mess” of alcohol and drug abuse.
He claims his “Responsibility First” campaign signs that dot the Key Peninsula could just as easily be taken down if the department adopted stricter policies.
“I don’t think the department is worth funding until we get this cleaned up,” Yanity said. “I want it cleaned up. I hated to oppose every one of these levies.”
But Lique said his department’s drug and alcohol policies line up with other departments statewide, and his firefighters are better fit, on average, than counterparts within Pierce County.
Yanity wants to see stricter drug testing throughout the department, calling for random drug testing every month.
Lique said drug testing protocol within the department lines up with the standard for what other departments do across the state. New members go through a drug screening that includes testing for marijuana, cocaine, opiates and amphetamines, he said. Once new staff members are hired, they are only tested if there is a complaint about them that is verified by another person.
Department staff members also have been disciplined recently for actions taken while they were off the clock.
Last December, two off-duty firefighters were involved in an incident at a bar in Tacoma. An internal investigation was conducted and the two were found to have broken department policy, Lique said.
“They were disciplined for the way they acted in a private party,” Lique said.
Lique added that his firefighters are always held to higher expectations, both on and off the clock.
Yanity said the discipline was a “slap on the wrist.” He thinks the department should be stricter in its handling of firefighter behavior.
Five department personnel are currently under investigation surrounding an alleged incident that took place in June during a conference in Wenatchee.
Another issue of disagreement between the department and Yanity is the fitness level of its firefighters. Data collected in a 2008 annual wellness exam through Tacoma’s Exercise Science Center showed that, on average, the 47 male Key Peninsula personnel were 20 pounds heavier and had higher resting heart rates and blood pressure than county average, but they were more fit overall.
On a four-point scale of overall fitness, Key Peninsula male firefighters scored a 2.81, while the county average was 2.73.