Fire officials invite community members to learn more at two March meetings
Whatcom County Fire District 4 is reaching out to residents about its financial challenges and proposal to maintain emergency services. A letter was sent to fire district residents this month inviting community members to attend an upcoming meeting to learn more about this important public safety issue.
“We are committed to fostering an open dialogue with residents about our challenges,” said Steve Cooley, chair of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Whatcom 4. “We have inherited a failing financial situation and we must fix it.”
Whatcom 4 is considering asking residents for a fire levy increase to continue its contract with North Whatcom Fire & Rescue (NWFR) for emergency services. Whatcom 4 is hosting the following meetings for community members to learn more and ask questions:
- Tuesday, March 21 at 7 p.m. – Rome Grange, 2821 Mt. Baker Highway, Bellingham
- Saturday, March 25 at 9 a.m. – Station 12, 4142 Britton Loop Road, Bellingham
What is the issue?
Whatcom 4 contracts with NWFR for emergency services and covers 10,000 people over 40 square miles in the communities of Van Wyck, East Smith Road and Northshore. The contract with NWFR provides a higher level of emergency service at less cost for taxpayers than operating a standalone fire department.
The contract was signed in 2011 and requires Whatcom 4 to pay 25 percent of NWFR’s operating costs.
The contract expired in 2021 and NWFR will not grant another extension. In the past, NWFR residents have subsidized Whatcom 4 residents to the tune of $500,000. This is no longer feasible. The contract is set to end December 31, 2023.
Challenges to service
Since 2019, call volumes have increased 63 percent. More calls mean higher costs to provide service and Whatcom 4 does not collect enough revenue to pay for the service it provides. This is due to the district’s low fire levy rate and annexations by the city of Bellingham, both of which reduce Whatcom 4 revenue.
What are the numbers?
Whatcom 4 property owners pay $0.63 per $1,000 of assessed property value for emergency services, while NWFR property owners pay $0.84.
What is Whatcom 4 proposing?
Whatcom 4 has considered all options and found the most cost-effective solution is to consider asking voters to increase the fire levy rate and continue to contract with NWFR for emergency services. The proposed rate is still being discussed by the Board of Fire Commissioners for Whatcom 4.
This funding is necessary to maintain full-time 24-hour staffing at the Britton Loop Road Station 12. If the lid lift fails, the station would no longer be staffed 24 hours a day and residents would have to rely on mutual aid, which could increase response times up to 30 minutes or more. Lid lift funding would also pay for long-deferred station repairs and replace a fire engine that is past its usable life and starting to break down more frequently.
More expensive options include forming a standalone fire department and contracting with the city of Bellingham at a levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000.
“We recognize this is a lot of information to digest,” Chair Cooley said. “That is why we are meeting with community members to discuss and answer questions. At the end of the day, this is a partnership to protect lives and property – and we are confident we will find a suitable path forward to maintain quality emergency services for Whatcom 4 residents.”
More information can be found at www.wcfd4.com or nwfrs.net.
Whatcom County Fire District 4 (Whatcom 4) provides fire and emergency medical service (EMS) to 10,000 people over 40 square miles in the communities of Van Wyck, East Smith Road and Northshore. Whatcom 4 contracts with North Whatcom Fire & Rescue for emergency services. The contract provides a higher level of emergency service for Whatcom 4 residents at less cost than a standalone fire department.