City committee supports levy lid lift to restore funding for emergency services

A city council committee has recommended the Tacoma Fire Department (TFD) work with the city manager to formulate a plan for presenting a ballot measure to voters in September.

The goal?

Increase the city’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy to restore funding impacted by Initiative 747.

Historically, voters have supported raising taxes to support emergency services. In 2002, Tacoma residents approved a permanent levy increase from 42 cents to 50 cents per $1,000 assessed property value to expand emergency services in the city, and — in light of Initiative 747, which limits annual increases in property tax collections to one percent per year — avoid levy elections each year by maintaining a fixed levy rate and enhancing emergency services through 2006.

However, passage of Initiative 747, which puts a one-percent lid on levy increases, meant the voter-approved 50 cent levy increase actually totalled 40 cents per $1,000 assessed property value — a figure less than the original levy rate of 42 cents.

According to TFD’s Mike Fitzgerald, who made a presentation of the proposed levy lid lift during a presentation May 26 to the city’s public safety and human services committee, the proposal does not aim to unnecessarily raise taxes; rather, it is designed to return the levy to the voter-approved 50 cents per $1,000 through 2010.

While committee members generally supported the plan, concern was raised over whether voters would be bogged down by requests to raise taxes this fall.

“I think we need to have a discussion of timing,” said Deputy Mayor Mike Lonergan, referring to another proposal to lift the lid on a public works levy that would generate $48 million over six years for ongoing street repairs. According to public works employees, approximately 6,600 of the city’s 8,800 blocks of residential streets are in stages of disrepair that total $54.6 million, and a lid lift of approximately 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed valuation would allow the department to more aggressively repair residential streets. Last year, councilmembers earmarked $276,500 as part of the mid-biennial budget adjustment for a residential street repair program. However, those funds are limited to one year, and only pay to repair 25 blocks.

“Do we want both on the ballot?” asked Lonergan.

If voters reject the levy, TFD will begin to accrue a debt beginning in 2007, according to Fitzgerald. Data provided by TFD indicates budget deficits of $576,811 in 2007, $998,843 in 2008, $1.03 million in 2009, and $1.5 million in 2010.

Though Lonergan was concerned about timing, he generally supported the proposal. He argued that Initiative 747 has limited TFD’s ability to keep pace with enhanced services in Tacoma, which has seen a growing population and more medic transport services for senior citizens.

“The reality is that we have enhanced the service,” he said. In 2002, the city had 53 EMS personnel, according to TFD statistics. That number increased to 78 positions in 2005-2006. “We need to make the case by talking more about the enhancement of services.”