Opinion

Examining the failure of South King Fire and Rescue's Prop. 1 | Andy Hobbs

“If you’ve got a dollar and you spend 29 cents on a loaf of bread, you’ve got 71 cents left. But if you’ve got seventeen grand and you spend 29 cents on a loaf of bread, you’ve still got seventeen grand. There’s a math lesson for you.” — Steve Martin

The above math lesson explains one reason why South King Fire and Rescue’s Proposition 1 failed in the August primary (51.5 percent of voters said no).

The Mirror endorsed the proposed service benefit charge in the name of maintaining current service levels. However, voting yes on Prop. 1 was a leap of faith. The funding formula required an explanation that was difficult to comprehend.

Supporters and opponents of Prop. 1 launched a blizzard of numbers that inadvertently casted doubt upon all arguments. The only common ground in the debate was that someone somewhere faced higher charges for fire service if Prop. 1 passed. Regardless of the sales pitch, a voter in doubt is more willing to err on the side of no.

The defeat of Prop. 1 means cutbacks to fire service. South King Fire and Rescue ranks among the top fire districts in Washington, and has a duty to provide the best service possible for taxpayers. That said, telling a fire district to cut its own resources is like telling a frost-bitten hiker to amputate his own toes. Even if the cutbacks are more of a bloodletting and less of a hemorrhage, any cutbacks clash with the core principles of emergency responders who save lives for a living.

But in today’s economic climate, businesses and residents have fewer dollars to stretch, and it is a sin to ask for more. Fewer taxpayers feel sorry for public entities that struggle, perhaps because the economy already demands suffering at all levels.

South King Fire and Rescue receives nearly 95 percent of its funding from property taxes, and the real estate market crash has led to a double-digit decline in revenue. Do the upcoming cutbacks in fire service signal a catastrophe? Or are the cutbacks merely a blip in the fire district’s timeline?

Another example of a blip for the fire district came in 2008. Former assistant fire chief Grant Gaspard was caught embezzling about $725,000 from taxpayers, and was later sentenced to three years in prison. The swindle occurred over the course of several years, and coincidently, was discovered around the time the nation’s financial joyride slowed to a crawl. When the economy tanked, people began to scrutinize their suddenly limited resources, and South King Fire and Rescue learned a math lesson related to “minding the store.” (Note: The district has recovered all the money through insurance).

The fire district remains a pillar for public safety in the community. If the district must rely on fewer firefighters and less equipment to get the job done, then it is possible for the public to rely less on the district’s services. Through ongoing education and outreach, the district is capable of reducing demand by instilling a mindset of prevention and preparedness, one taxpayer at a time. Consistent and effective communication typically clears up confusion while establishing a long-term rapport with the public. With the cultivation of volunteer groups, the fire district could tap another supplement for service.

Going forward, rather than fearing the inevitable losses, the fire district and taxpayers must embrace opportunities to fill the voids. That mindset will ensure South King County maintains quality fire service today as well as tomorrow.

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