Fire levy on August ballot
Welander said they are weighing options, merger
March 23, 2023
West Mason Fire will be on the ballot in August with a $0.50 emergency medical services levy and a lid lift to $1.50.
If the levy and lid lift are approved, it would be $2 per day for a $400,000 house, West Mason Fire Chief Matthew Welander told the Journal. The levy and lift will pay for staff and a new fire engine.
The lid lift requires a simple majority to pass, while the EMS levy needs 60% approval to pass because it is a new tax for the area.
“We need people to come out to the commissioner meetings and tell us what they want,” Welander said March 16. “If they don’t want this, then either tell us why, tell us what they would rather see or come and help us sell it. This is where we are.”
West Mason has the fifth lowest fire district tax rate at 99 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, according to the Mason County Assessor’s Office. The lowest tax rate is in Mason County Fire District 17 at 36 cents per $1,000 assessed property value. The highest tax rate is in Mason County Fire District 4 with a tax rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Welander said the EMS levy is mainly for personnel and the lid lift would initially go toward a new engine, and whatever is leftover would go to infrastructure.
“The big thing for us, if you really look at it, is we’re just trying to get up to what everybody else is charging,” Welander said. “We’re literally half right now. If you go back historically, what you are seeing is our property values are going up fast. Inflation is going up and our tax rate has dropped significantly. Everybody right now, we’ve got to max out our levies because of what has happened with inflation and everything like that and because of the statutory maximum of the 1% per year, we just can’t keep up with inflation. The price of fuel, the price of tires, the price of people, if your employees are getting a 3, 4, 5, 10% raise every year and your statutory max is 1% raise per year, you get further behind every year.”
If either the levy or the lid lift fails, Welander said the priority is personnel because West Mason Fire doesn’t have enough volunteers to do it without paid staff anymore. The programs that bring in free help such as internships would need more staff to oversee the programs.
“If we don’t have paid staff,” we have nothing, Welander said. “And that’s where we’re at. I can’t beat into it hard enough, our commissioner meetings are the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, if you’ve got a better idea, come tell us what it is.”
Welander said West Mason Fire is struggling and under-supported. The district ran a property tax levy lid lift in November and 53.77% of people voted against it to ensure it didn’t pass.
Welander said he thinks it didn’t pass because it wasn’t publicized well enough.
“If I don’t have enough people to go out and knock on doors and talk to people and answer questions, and we run a lid lift or an EMS levy, they’re not going to be informed enough to make that vote,” Welander said. “We’ve got this two-edged failure in that we don’t have the people to pass the vote and without the vote, we don’t have the people to do the calls. We don’t have the people to hire folks and then you’re back to we don’t have the people to pass the vote. Somehow, we have to magic education and I’m not really sure how to do that with myself, a deputy chief, a small handful of extremely dedicated volunteers, but it’s a very small handful.”
The direct effect from the failure to pass a lid lift was felt immediately, with West Mason Fire unable to hire three people to staff the ambulance they had planned to hire if the lid lift passed.
During the height of COVID, West Mason Fire received federal money and was able to make money through ambulance transports. With that money gone, most of those people have moved on to other fire jobs.
“COVID gave us an opportunity to see how many calls and transports we could do and how much money we could make if we had the staffing,” Welander said. “What we found was if we could get part of the staffing, we could pay for the rest of the staffing with the transport dollars. It was an interesting experiment, it was only supposed to last three weeks, three months, whatever it was. We had people here for three years and I think part of the problem, like passing stuff, is everybody drove by here every day and they saw a full station. They saw that we had staff, we were covering all of our calls, we were helping other districts with their calls. We were taking all kinds of ambulance transports, we were transporting for other districts, we were going everywhere and then COVID stopped and so did our funding and so did the people and all of the people with the exception of four of the people that did COVID shifts here at one time or another, they all went to fire jobs somewhere. We kept people employed; we helped people find employment. We used the program exactly as it was intended in addition to taking care of a ton of taxpayers, we helped keep the hospital from not being overcrowded, we took every transport we could. We figured we were using federal dollars so we should do our part in transporting the patients out to keep the hospital open.”
Welander said four of the fire engines are 30 or almost 30 years old. He said the station hasn’t been updated in decades, and two of the stations don’t have bathrooms.
He said if the lid lift and EMS levy both fail, they will likely have to lay off someone, or Welander or Deputy Chief Greg Seals would go find a job elsewhere.
Welander said they always look at the possibility of mergers because they make sense.
“You can pay two chiefs or you can pay a chief and two firefighters,” Welander said. “It’s that simple. You can pay two secretaries or you can pay a secretary and a firefighter. Anybody right now that’s not looking at mergers is a fool. They don’t understand the problem. They don’t understand the complexity of it. I’ll probably piss a lot of people off, but they probably don’t have the education that they need to be making the decisions that they’re making. Now mergers have to make sense, they have to benefit both sides and all those things, but if you just look at it on the surface, everybody is strapped for cash with the exception of Central (Mason Fire & EMS) and District 4, and probably North Mason because they’re big enough and they’re close to the max for taxation. They’re getting almost a whole other dollar per $1,000 over us.”
Welander said they are doing what they can to help out their neighbors, but they need some help in return.
“In regards to the fire service, you’ve got three options, and only three. You can either buy it with taxes, you can be it if you insist on volunteers or you can do without it,” Welander said. “What people don’t understand is 70% of our calls are medical calls so you’re not just saying we can go without it on the fire side, you’re saying that we don’t care if anybody comes to grandma’s heart attack. You’re saying we don’t care if somebody needs CPR, their help is coming from Allyn because we don’t have any volunteers here. There’s so much more to it.”