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Voters in the region protected by the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority’s coverage area will, this primary election, decide the fate of a property tax levy to go toward the department’s maintenance and operational expenses for a three-year period.
Officials within the department say without the measure, half of the staffing at the department will be let go.
“Without approval of that levy, then 14 positions will receive notice,” said Operations Chief Robert Scott.
The levy spans a three-year period with rates of approximately $1.09 per $1,000 of assessed value for 2020, $1.06 the following year and $1.03 the year after. All collected funds would go toward maintaining the current staffing level and costs and of operations, in the midst of a time when calls for service are increasing and the department finds itself understaffed, said Chief Russ Kaleiwahea – who noted the staffing issue has been a constant throughout his career.
Currently, two career firefighters are staffed at three of the four stations within the RFA’s 158-square-mile jurisdiction, and one is staffed at the fourth. Kaleiwahea noted they do their best to supplement their staffing with volunteers. Staffing is dispersed strategically across four stations, with a goal of responding to incidents within eight minutes. Currently, the RFA’s average is running a bit faster than the goal.
Kaleiwahea’s concern is that without the levy’s approval, the four stations won’t be able to be fully staffed, resulting in slower response times to incidents and relying more heavily on mutual aid from surrounding jurisdictions.
“I personally believe this is one of the biggest public safety issues before this community,” said Kaleiwahea.
The RFA’s statistics show that during 28 percent of emergency calls, a second unrelated call will come through before the first can be resolved.
Scott said this was on full display last week, when RFA personnel responded to a house fire on Sargent Road Southwest in Rochester. As crews were on-site, a call came in for a rollover crash on 183rd Avenue, resulting in a woman being airlifted with serious injuries. A second house fire occurred the following night.
The proposed levy was approved by the RFA’s board of commissioners during a recent vote, and recommended by an assembled citizens advisory committee. The committee was formed in 2014 to assist in the deliberation of department issues.
They had proposed a levy for the 2016 ballot to fund the hiring of 10 career firefighters to allow staffing across four stations at Grand Mound, Rochester, Littlerock and Maytown.
The levy allowed for the collection of funds through 2019, and the proposed one would be in replacement and, rather than bring aboard new hires, would maintain the current level of staffing and expenses, said Kaleiwahea.
The chiefs are hosting community events at 2 p.m. July 30 at Farm Boy Drive-in Restaurant, 3840 Maytown Road SW, and 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 1 at Scott Lake Community Center, 2631 114th Way, to take questions from community members.