EYE ON OLYMPIA: EMS levy debate begins in House, education reform in Senate

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — A bill sponsored by a 24th Legislative District representative that would allow fire districts and cities across the state to collect more tax dollars via emergency medical services levies had its first hearing last week.

Meanwhile, the district’s state senator introduced legislation aimed at improving the state’s education system.

State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is the prime sponsor of a bill that would allow Washington fire districts and cities to collect up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation via an emergency medical services, or EMS, tax levy— designed to fund costs associated with ambulance service—rather than be limited to the current cap of 50 cents per $1,000.

Van De Wege, a firefighter/paramedic lieutenant with Sequim-based Clallam County Fire District No. 3, said the bill would give fire districts struggling with declining assessed property values the ability to go to their respective taxpayers and ask for more EMS funds.

“With assessed values going down, there’s no backstop, there’s no floor,” Van De Wege said, referring to the fact that EMS levies are not guaranteed to provide a minimum amount of funding if property assessments continue to drop.

Van De Wege said the bill received supportive testimony from chiefs of some of the state’s larger fire departments, such as the city of Tacoma’s, during a public hearing on the bill at a Friday meeting of the House Finance Committee.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, another Sequim Democrat and Van De Wege’s 24th District seat mate, vice-chairs the Finance Committee.

Tharinger and Van De Wege, along with state senator and Hoquiam Democrat Jim Hargrove, represent the 24th District, which comprises Clallam and Jefferson counties and a third of Grays Harbor County.

Tharinger said the House Finance Committee did not hear any testimony in opposition to Van De Wege’s bill, though Tharinger said he thought the proposed levy increase cap should be examined more closely in relation to other levies paid by property owners.

“It’s a question of looking at those in total and then making some decisions, I think,” Tharinger said.

If the bill is approved and the EMS levy cap increased to 75 cents, Van De Wege said fire districts would still have to put any levy increases to a vote of their residents.

“It isn’t a tax hike from Olympia or anything,” Van De Wege said.

Clallam County Fire District 3 and Clallam County Hospital District No. 1, which runs Forks Community Hospital, are the only Clallam taxing districts to collect EMS levies, while all but two of the seven fire districts in Jefferson County collect EMS levies at the capped 50-cent rate.

Gordon Pomeroy, chief of East Jefferson Fire-Rescue, said he can’t imagine his district needing the additional levying capacity over the next year, but said the bill would help other districts to at least have that option.

“I think, for the whole state, it’s probably a good idea to have that tool available,” Pomeroy said.

EMS calls typically make up the highest percentage of responses for fire districts, Pomeroy explained, and comprise 74 percent of all the calls East Jefferson Fire-Rescue personnel respond to.

In other 24th Legislative District news, Hargrove last week introduced an education system reform bill that would, among other changes, allow state Learning Assistance Program to be used in more ways to help students with behavior difficulties.

State Learning Assistance Program funds currently go to help students achieving below grade-level on the state’s assessment tests and 11th- and 12th-grade students at risk of not graduating, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Hargrove’s bill, according to information provided by his staff, would allow Learning Assistance Program money to fund the work of parental involvement coordinators, who act as liaisons between schools and parents when students are dealing with behavior issues.

The proposed legislation would also change the state teacher salary system so that a teacher’s salary is tied the teacher’s ability to positively impact student learning rather than the current salary method, which is based on years of service and academic degree achievement.

Hargrove said the point of these changes is to allow the $4 billion in additional funding the state Supreme Court has ordered the legislature to funnel toward basic education to pay for targeted evidenced-based changes in the current education system rather than simply continue to fund existing programs.

A state Supreme Court ruling last January, called the McCleary decision, determined the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education and must do so by 2018.

The decision is named for Stephanie McCleary of Chimacum, a parent in the Chimacum School District and the lead petitioner of a lawsuit filed against the state alleging it was not meeting its state constitutional mandate of fully funding basic education.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 27. 2013 6:27PM
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