Local safety taxes can’t buy ambulances or fire trucks. Voters may get to change that

Hunter with hypothermia rescued after falling into Columbia River near Finley

Rescue crews treat hunter Justin Priest for hypothermia after he fell into the chilly waters of the Columbia River downriver of Straightbank Road in Finley. Priest was flown by medical helicopter to a local hospital for treatment.
Up Next
Rescue crews treat hunter Justin Priest for hypothermia after he fell into the chilly waters of the Columbia River downriver of Straightbank Road in Finley. Priest was flown by medical helicopter to a local hospital for treatment.

The fire districts of Benton County have gotten pretty scrappy about finding money to buy fire trucks, ambulances and rescue boats.

They implore voters to approve property tax bumps. They apply for grants, and welcome donations. In one case, a local district turned to crowd funding.

And when that approach fails, they make due with aging equipment or go without.

It’s an approach that’s left Fire District 1 in southeastern Benton County with no ambulances and consigned water rescuers from Fire District 2 in Benton City to the Yakima River shoreline.

The Benton County Republican Party and local fire chiefs want to help by letting fire districts request money from the county’s $12.7 million public safety fund.

Voters approved a three-tenths of a percent sales tax in 2014 to beef up law enforcement and crime-fighting activities.

Fire departments were not included, leaving them off the list of agencies eligible for the millions of tax dollars.

The public safety fund is expected to have a balance of $12.7 million at the end of 2020, when the county’s fiscal biennium expires.

Bill Berkman, chair of the Benton County Republican Party, and local fire chiefs will make the case to county commissioners at 9 a.m. May 7 at the courthouse in Prosser.

Sales tax wish list
Benton County is expected to have about $12.7 million in its public safety sales tax fund in 2020. File Tri-City Herald

They will request that the commission ask voters in the August primary to amend the rules for public safety funding to make fire districts eligible for the public safety money.

The county would be directed to consider law enforcement requests before considering fire district requests.

Voters approved the original in 2014 and must agreed to expanding it.

Berkman called it natural to include fire districts in the definition of public safety.

Turning to GoFundMe

Fire districts are in need of the help, said Chief Ron Duncan of Benton County Fire District 2, which serves 88 square miles around Benton City.

District 2 is raising money on GoFundMe to put a rescue boat on the Yakima River.

Benton County boat
Benton County Fire District 2 in Benton City is using GoFundMe to raise money for a rescue boat for the Yakima River. Fire chiefs and the Benton County Republican Party want voters to change the rules for public safety funds to include fire districts. Benton County Fire District 2

It has raised $24,000 of its $55,000 goal since starting last year.

The district trained and equipped personnel, but without a proper boat, rescuers have to work from the shoreline.

Dawson said Benton City voters reliably support the district’s requests for levies and bonds. But they’re tapped out, leading him to launch the GoFundMe campaign.

“The boat is just one of the things I need to fund,” Duncan said. “I’ve got a lot of problems.”

And District 2 isn’t unique.

No ambulances

Benton County Fire District 1, serving a 320-mile square area of southeastern Benton County, asked its voters to approve funding to establish badly-needed ambulance services.

The measure failed last year.

Chief Lonnie Click said the district remains committed to securing the equipment it needs to fill in a gap in ambulance service. But it needs help.

He supports expanding the public safety sales tax fund to help fire departments.

“We don’t have ambulances and we could use them,,” Click said.

Fire chiefs stress they’re partners with law enforcement, not competitors for scant resources.

All in this together

The public safety sales tax has generated tens of millions for law enforcement in the county and its cities — Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser.

By law, the county and cities splits the proceeds 60-40.

A year ago, the county commission came under fire when it declined basic funding requests after the reserve topped $12 million, exceeding all projections.

It agreed to support additional funding for courts, clerks and sheriff’s offices and made a series of grants to public and nonprofit agencies that work to reduce crime and help at-risk youth, including a clubhouse for the Boys & Girls Club in Kennewick.

Fire chiefs say it makes little sense to treat fire departments differently than law enforcement when they work together on so many emergencies.

“Why shouldn’t we all be in this together when it comes to public safety,” said Chief William Whealan of Benton County Fire District 4, serving West Richland.

The proposed ballot measure would not change the terms of the public safety sales tax. It would remain three-tenths of a percent until it expires in 2024.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.