North Whatcom Fire and Rescue plans to put levy increase before voters

District unable to keep up with call volumes, fire chief says


North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) is preparing to ask voters for an increase in the property tax it depends on to fund daily operations. Amid a skyrocketing number of calls, NWFR chief Jason Van Der Veen issued a statement on November 16 outlining departmental budget shortfalls.

NWFR commissioners are mulling the prospect of asking voters to approve a levy lift in the August primary election, but have not yet settled on the specific amount they would be seeking, according to the fire chief. In a November 16 press release, the district wrote that commissioners were "considering asking voters to reset the levy rate from $0.85 to $1.20 per $1,000 of assessed property value." Chief Van Der Veen later told The Northern Light that the commissioners' final decision on a levy amount could come in February or March of next year.

“We want to be transparent with our community,” Van Der Veen wrote. “We are struggling to keep up with the demand for service. We need more firefighters as well as adequate facilities and equipment to respond to calls.”

Call volumes have nearly doubled in the past decade, fire stations are not properly staffed to respond to all calls and response times, especially for emergency medical services, have grown longer as a result, the fire district’s press release stated. The district is also in need of replacing three fire engines, a ladder truck and Station 63 in Birch Bay, which the district wrote, “all reached the end of their serviceable lives and need to be replaced.”

NWFR, which serves nearly 34,000 people across 156 square miles in Blaine, Birch Bay, Semiahmoo and Custer, responded to 5,936 calls – an average of 16.3 per day – in 2022, 57 percent of which were for emergency medical services, the release stated.

Property taxes fund NWFR. Voters have not been keen to reset the cap that the fire district can collect. The last time voters agreed to allow a levy lid lift for NWFR was in 2006, which set a property tax rate of $1.42 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

State law limits fire districts to collect a maximum of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed home values. Districts are limited to one percent annual increases in revenues. As property values increase, the cost per $1,000 assessed value typically decreases. NWFR now collects $0.85 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Without a levy lid lift, Van Der Veen said the district doesn’t have another viable funding option.

In the 2008 and 2021 general elections, NWFR asked voters to consider a levy increase to a rate of $1.40. Both times it was shot down by more than 60 percent of voters. 

Clarification:  The original version of this story did not properly attribute the $1.20 per $1,000 levy as a preliminary rate posited by the fire district in a November 16 press release. A new rate for voters to approve has not been set by NWFR's commissioners, and will likely come early next year. This story was updated  at 2:22 p.m. on  December 7. 


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