Crowd seeks vote on utility tax

ARLINGTON – In a week where Independence Day pyrotechnics lit up the air, a public hearing for a proposed ambulance utility tax had its own share of fireworks. A proposed $15 fee was packaged as a way to close the gap on funding shortfalls in EMS service and free up general fund dollars to pay for more police. But the consensus among the 70 people who attended Monday’s City Council meeting was that they didn’t want a $15 fee tacked on to their utility bills. They preferred that the issue be put before voters.

After the smoke cleared and opinions were aired, the council voted 4-3 to table the proposal for further discussion.

John Gilliland, 84, was among those who supported a ballot measure. He took umbrage with a letter the city mailed to 8,000 ratepayers that tried to make a case for the fee.

“When I looked at the letter again, I said to my wife, ‘There’s an old military phrase, and it goes, ‘Hey, pass the bread. Here comes the baloney,’” Gilliland said.

Council members Mike Hopson, Marilyn Oertle, Sue Weiss and Josh Roundy voted yes; Jan Schuette, Debra Nelson and Jesica Stickles voted against tabling the matter.

“This (fee) isn’t a decision that was taken lightly,” City Administrator Paul Ellis said. Arlington has tried several ways to contend with EMS funding shortfalls and addressing gaps in funding.

For example, the city restructured command in police and fire, increased contract costs for adjacent fire districts, used grants to hire two new officers, deployed an embedded social worker, created a police volunteer program and other efforts.

Forming a regional fire authority with Marysville, as it turned out, would have cost residents a lot more than $15 a month, officials said. By comparison, the assessment likely would have been $1 per $1,000 assessed property value. On a $350,000 home, the cost would have reached $525 per year, factoring in the existing EMS levy, instead of the $180 per year the fee on a monthly bill would have totaled.

Ellis pointed out that several other cities across Washington have ambulance utility fees that have successfully supported public safety. The fee would be a restricted fund in the city budget, so monies couldn’t be used for other purposes, he said.

The city received numerous letters and emails about the proposed fee, and impassioned residents got their opportunity to speak.

George Spencer said he and his Gleneagle neighbors support first responders, even if they disagree with the fee proposal.

“Let’s do this, but let’s do it the right way,” Spencer said. “The right way is to do this by public vote.” Darrell Wilson, a former firefighter, said when he started there was no EMS, so they used Red Cross First Aid cars before private ambulances to do transporting for a California city three times the size of Arlington.

“Use private ambulance services and let the people pay for it on their own,” Wilson said. “You don’t need all these super-expensive toys to run around on your city streets.”

Others supported the fee.

John Meno said while he’s not enamored with the extra fee he supports it as the least-costly option to eliminate EMS subsidies and free up dollars for police and other necessities put on hold.

Holly Buchanan said: “When I first heard the $15, I thought, oh no.” Like others, her utility has gone up some, cutting into her limited income. But when she considered there have been no staff increases in the last five years she could live with the added cost.

Buchanan concluded, “Fifteen dollars is a really small amount to pay for the security and safety that I’m getting in this community.”

Andrew Shannon with Arlington Firefighters Union IFF Local 3728 said Arlington public safety is the least staffed in Snohomish County, with police and fire running more calls per staff member than any other department countywide.

Shannon said their beef is that while the utility fee will eventually generate the funding to support fire and EMS, it could be three years from now. When the fire department asked for three firefighters right away, city officials said the department meets the six-minute federally recognized acceptable response time on calls most of the time.

“We want to be able to administer CPR in two minutes without a break, and the city’s going to ask you to wait six minutes for us to get there,” Shannon said.

With city officials expecting high-density growth, retirement communities and apartment buildings, the fire department’s call volume could increase by up to 30 percent before the three firefighters are hired. Councilwoman Oertle said, “I would hope we could regroup and discuss all your concerns.” Weiss agreed.

Nelson added, “You can’t continue a business eight years and reach $1.5 million in the red.” Stickles said police understaffing is a serious issue. “This is the only, and the best option,” she said. Roundy said he supports the fee in principal, but believes it’s too high. Schuette said she was concerned that if the council didn’t move forward with the fee, police staffing levels would remain uncomfortably low for a community that is reeling from homelessness and opioid addiction. “We haven’t hired additional police since 2009,” Schuette said. The City Council and city management have spent four years exploring options to get EMS funding and public safety services on a sustainable track, ranging from a Regional Fire Authority to tightening internal controls.

“The council has turned over every rock to resolve the issue, and each step of the way, this option (the fee) came down to being the least impact financially to the citizens, and providing at least five years of sustainability,” Mayor Barb Tolbert said.

Rich Senff, owner of Action Sports, said the fee is premature, considering upcoming contracts for EMS service that will be negotiated with other local fire districts later this year.

“The city offers EMS service to other districts, four other districts, two of which do not pay their fair share of the service provided, and two which pay most but not all,” he said. “Those districts need to pay back what is owed, and the new contract needs to be raised significantly because of the cost of the services provided.”

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