March 13, 2023
Fire chief: “We want our community to understand how we fund emergency services.”
Camano Island Fire & Rescue provides fire and life safety services to 17,000 people over 46 square miles, operates under a balanced budget, and has passed all independent financial and accountability audits. The fire department responds to an average of 2,300 calls per year – of which 66 percent are for emergency medical service (EMS).
“Transparency and accountability are key to maintaining public trust,” Fire Chief Levon Yengoyan said. “We want our community to understand how we are funded. This is a partnership to protect lives and property and we are grateful for the support.”
How emergency services are funded
Camano Fire is a separate taxing district and is funded by two voter-approved property tax levies: the EMS levy and the regular levy. Although these levies appear on your Island County tax statement, Camano Fire is not part of Island County government and does not receive any funding from Island County.
The EMS levy is capped at $0.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value and funds a portion of EMS personnel and medical equipment costs.
Most of the fire department’s funding comes from the regular levy capped at $1.50 per $1,000. This levy funds daily operations including the EMS program. The regular levy also pays for most capital projects such as equipment replacements or fire station renovations.
“There is a common misconception that revenue for the fire department increases annually by the same amount as assessed property values,” Chief Yengoyan said. “That is not the case.”
State law limits fire departments to a set amount of revenue per year plus a one percent increase. Even if property values double, the fire department can only collect one percent more each year. This means levy rates fall as property values rise to limit fire departments to the same amount of revenue from the previous year plus that one percent increase (or any other voter-approved increase).
For example, voters approved a regular levy rate of $1.35 per $1,000 in 2017. Since then, the levy rate has dropped to $0.83 per $1,000, while call volumes have increased by 28 percent. This is called “levy erosion” and impacts a fire department’s ability to provide emergency services.
Camano Fire is considering asking voters to raise the regular levy from $0.83 to $1.25 per $1,000 sometime this year. The fire department will make a final decision after a public process is conducted.
Stretching tax dollars further
Camano Fire applies for grants and works with neighboring agencies to share costs. It also prefers to pay cash for most capital projects through the regular levy than borrowing money, which costs taxpayers more in interest payments. In addition, the fire department is proactive about maintaining equipment, fire engines and ambulances to extend their usable lives and reduce maintenance costs. These strong financial management practices have earned Camano Fire an AA rating with Standard and Poor’s.
The fire department recently completed a detailed study of its service which guides funding decisions and strategic plans. These plans are approved by the Board of Fire Commissioners who are elected to represent the community’s priorities. All board meetings are open to the public and meeting information can be found on the About Us page of the fire department’s website.
Find more information about Camano Island Fire & Rescue at www.camanofire.com. Chief Yengoyan also welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-387-1512.