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West Richland fire district urges voters to back emergency services tax

Emergency workers from Benton Fire District 4 rescue a driver who rolled his semi-truck on Interstate 82 near West Richland in 2014.
Emergency workers from Benton Fire District 4 rescue a driver who rolled his semi-truck on Interstate 82 near West Richland in 2014. Tri-City Herald

Fire officials in West Richland are asking citizens to pass a tax that will help permanently pay for emergency medical services.

The tax runs out at the end of the year, and officials in Benton Fire District 4 want to put a lifelong levy in place that would stabilize funding for medical services.

Officials aren’t asking for a tax increase, rather for voters to approve the levy rate permanently. The first levy ever in the district, in 2010, was for six years and passed with more than 64 percent of the vote.

Citizens in the 52-square-mile district pay 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for medical services, or $125 annually for a $250,000 home.

Officials aren’t asking for a tax increase, rather for voters to approve the levy rate permanently.

Fire commissioners recently passed a resolution ensuring the levy will be on the ballot during the primary election in August. It needs 60 percent to pass and more than 40 percent of citizens who voted during the last general election need to vote.

“We need people to get out there and vote,” said Bill Whealan, chief of District 4.

The money would help long-term planning, potentially improve services and help save tens of thousands of dollars in election costs, officials said. The tax brings in about $600,000 annually.

If voters don’t approve the levy, about half of the department’s personnel could lose their jobs, response times would likely go up and the ambulance service could go away entirely, Whealan said.

“How can you plan for the future if every six years or 10 years you don’t know if you are going to have your money,” Whealan said.

A majority of the calls for service within the department, 63 percent, are medical-related. Since 2010, emergency medical calls in the district have increased 57 percent.

We need people to get out there and vote.

Bill Whealan, fire chief of Benton Fire District 4

Whealan himself knows the importance of having efficient medical services in West Richland. The chief suffered a stroke in 2015 and credits the fast reaction of medics in the district with saving his life.

“The value of EMS is even more important to me as it ever has been in my life, and I’ve been doing this for 34 years,” he said.

Money from the emergency medical services tax has allowed officials to staff another fire station and reduced ambulance response times by an average of three minutes.

District officials will be campaigning over the next few months to educate voters and address concerns, Whealan said.

The chief is optimistic that citizens will realize how important emergency services are and back the district come August.

“We have saved numerous lives out there,” he said.

Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556, @Ty_richardson

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