Supermajority Renews Fire Levy

The levy will help pay for salaries, facilities maintenance and new vehicles.

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The Key Peninsula voted to renew the existing maintenance and operation levy for KP Fire District 16 in the primary election Aug. 4.

The department will continue to receive $800,000 a year from KP taxpayers for another four years, though the annual millage rate will vary according to the rise and fall in value of assessed properties.

Renewal required a 60% supermajority of voter approval and a 40% threshold of local voter turnout compared to the last general election, which was Nov. 5, 2019.

The levy cleared the threshold with 4,715 KP voters weighing in, far more than the 2,344 needed, approving renewal by 65.45%, according to the Pierce County Auditor.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve consistently heard from the community, ‘Tell us what the plan is, share where you’re headed, and we’ll support you,’ ” said Fire Chief Dustin Morrow, who began his tenure in April 2019. “Even though this organization did a great job before I got here, I really feel that we have doubled down to be present in and with the community.”

The M&O levy pays for salaries and facilities and vehicle maintenance. “At any given time there are between three and six positions that ride across that dollar amount,” Morrow said. KPFD employs 27 fulltime firefighter/paramedic/EMTs, who are supplemented by more than a dozen volunteers.

“Unfortunately, a lot of money right now is going toward our fleet, and a lot of money is going toward facility upgrades that we have to do,” Morrow said. “We have just gone through a process of replacing a lot of communication equipment in our buildings that was outdated and malfunctioning. We have a lot of fundamentals to do — painting, caulking, siding, repairing a storm drain.”

The levy will also be used to upgrade the department’s vehicles.

“All of our apparatus is aged; the four primary engines are 2004s. Hal (Wolverton, assistant fire chief) has been doing an amazing job keeping those things up to speed, but I’m watching bills come in right now in the $10,000 to $15,000 range for those units, so we’re at a tipping point,” Morrow said.

The department purchased two ambulances a few years ago, but they were new chassis with old ambulance “boxes” mounted on them. “For our fire service here on the Key Peninsula, they are grossly inadequate,” Morrow said. “We are a multi-duty agency, so we take those ambulances and throw half of our fire stuff in them, like vehicle extrication tools, so they’re packed tight and they are really light duty chassis that aren’t meant to be used the way we’re using them.”

The first of three new ambulance units built on heavy duty truck chassis should appear on the KP early in 2021.

“They run in the $230,000 to $260,000 range, and if we do our work right and we take care of them, they should last a full 10 years without any problems,” Morrow said.

About 80% of KPFD’s calls are medical or rescue-related. The department recorded 1,154 total responses in the first six months of 2020, including 704 medical calls.

New fire engines can cost up to $650,000, Morrow said. “We have the four main engines from 2004 and two 1985-6 engines that are in place as a last ditch. Our new engines will be much smaller, much shorter; they’ll still have the firefighting capacity, but the girth will be something very different.” The new design will make it easier to get to remote areas at the end of narrow, unpaved roads on the KP.

Morrow said he and the board of fire commissioners are developing a plan to start saving money for equipment replacement and perhaps prepare a bond to put to voters sometime in the future. “The strategy right now is to keep what we have on the road. It isn’t like we have an abundance of resources, but with proper planning and execution, when we use the resources that are given to us in the right way, they can actually go quite far,” he said.

“There’s more for me to do: There’s a strategic plan that needs to be done, there’s a long-term forecast that we are finishing up, we are going to start these bond conversations about what the long-term needs are, I have to create more formal processes about showing what the need is. We’ve got a long way to go, but we are really on the right track.

“I don’t even know how to articulate it, but we are so thankful that our community is engaged and we have some advocates out there who have really helped us along.”