North Lincoln Fire & Rescue will take another shot at getting a vital tax levy passed during the upcoming Nov. 2 general election after missing the mark last May by a mere 20 votes.
The new levy would impose a tax rate of $1.22 per $1,000 of assessed property value for taxpayers within the district, replacing the current levy and its 84-cent rate. For the average homeowner with a $300,000 home, that would be roughly $9.50 a month.
This change would affect property owners in NLFR’s service area, which encompasses Lincoln City, Otis, Rose Lodge and other areas in north Lincoln County.
“One thing I really want to stress, which I think might not have come through during the last election, is that this $1.22 is not in addition to what we currently have. It replaces the 84 cents we currently have and simply adds another 38 cents on top of that so we can get our response times equal throughout town,” NLFR Chief Rob Dahlman said.
That 38 cent increase would go primarily toward expanding NLFR district staff, up to 20 members total, who would then be able to regularly staff stations on the southern end of Lincoln City. Dahlman said staffing those stations would go a long way in decreasing response time for fires in the southern end of the department’s service area, in many cases cutting them by more than half.
“I can show on paper the reduction in response times that have gone from almost 12 minutes down to nearly 5 minutes, and we want everyone to have those similar response times,” Dahlman said.
Dahlman added operating costs for the district have been rising in recent years, and the old volunteer-based models for running a fire district have become unreliable with too many volunteers having full time commitments, and requiring an investment into paid staff to keep up with an ever-increasing number of calls.
If approved, the levy would last five years, and the proposed rate would raise approximately $3,161,283 in fiscal year 2022-2023, $3,240,315 in 2023-2024, $3,321,323 in 2024-2025, $3,404,356 in 2025-2026 and $3,489,465 in 2026-2027 for the district.
If the levy fails to pass this second time in November, NLFR will have one more opportunity to pass it in the May 2022 election. If that attempt were to also fail, the effects on the district could be devastating.
NLFR relies almost entirely on its levy-based income for funding, and if the next two votes for the levy fail, Dahlman said the district would need to fall back on its permanent rate of 68 cents per $1,000 of property value, which wouldn’t even be able to sustain the district’s current level of operation.
“The main thing is that 14 firefighters will lose their jobs. Those jobs will just have to go away,” Dahlman said. “We’ll also have to cut certain training and benefit programs for volunteers.”
After the first levy failed in May, Dahlman and the NLFR Board of Directors considered proposing a lower rate for the second attempt, such as the previous 84 cent rate, but ultimately decided the amount of funding generated would not keep up with the district’s expected needs in the next five years.
“We have to consider what we’re doing today and what we’re going to be experiencing in terms of call volume five years from now,” Dahlman said. “We’re running 10 calls a day right now as an average, about a third higher, and will have our busiest year yet. And that’s not just us; every fire department in the county is experiencing the busiest year we’ve ever had.”
Dahlman said operating costs for the district have been rising steadily in recent years, and the old volunteer-based model for running a fire district has become too unreliable, requiring an investment into paid staff for districts to provide the necessary coverage. He added that current district volunteers have also put their support behind the levy, even paying for a letter in this year’s voter pamphlet.
“A lot of folks think hiring more staff means we’ll be getting rid of our volunteers, but that’s not true. Our volunteers have been massively in support of hiring more professional staff,” Dahlman said. “They want the extra help.”
That might not be the only consequence, however, as when the previous levy failed, members of the Lincoln City City Council became concerned that they might lose their service and as a precautionary measure, asked city staff to look into what it might take to create its own fire department.
If the city were to create its own district, it would take away NLFR’s largest coverage area and the city would be entitled to most of the stations and equipment located within its borders. Dahlman says that after speaking with current city management, that option isn’t currently being pursued, but that could change with a new city manager set to take the reins within the next year.
“The current city manager says they have no intention of looking at that, but if they did choose to take it over, then by state statute, they could take all the stations and equipment within the city and even some from out outlying stations,” Dahlman said. “We would also lose all the tax money that would come from the city, and if I had to guess, we’d end up being a shell of what we are today.”
Voters will weigh in on the tax levy request in the Nov. 2 election, with ballots set to go out on Oct. 13.