Clallam Fire District No. 2 tax measure becomes contentious

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

Contributions for, against levy lid lift proposal

Clallam County Fire District No. 2’s ballot measure has sparked more than a war of words between Chief Sam Phillips and Olympic Ambulance owner Bill Littlejohn.

The Committee to Support Clallam County Fire District 2 has raised $2,840, including $1,500 from Phillips.

It is headed by Mike DeRousie of Port Angeles.

Citizens Against Fire District 2 Levy has raised more than twice as much, $7,050, though Littlejohn is not among the contributors.

It is headed by Eric Foth of Port Angeles.

The following contributors have donated for and against the district’s levy lid lift proposal:

Committee to Support Fire District 2 (data provided by committee Treasurer Dan Huff):

■   $1,500: Sam and Jennifer Phillips, District No. 2 fire chief, Port Angeles.

■   $840: Fire District No. 2 volunteers.

■   $400: Port Angeles firefighters.

■   $250: Travis McFarland (a career firefighter hired under a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA); Dan and Judy Hendrickson, retired; Mount Pleasant Grange, all Port Angeles.

■   $100: Port Angeles Business Association.

Citizens Against Fire District 2 Levy (data provided by state Public Disclosure Commission for contributions of $100 or more):

■   $1,300: A.R. Stowell, truck driver, Port Angeles; Jessica Sumners, self-employed, Sequim.

■   $1,250: Corrine Notar, bookkeeper, Olympic Ambulance; Linda Mellott, accountant, Sherwood Assisted Living, Sequim.

■   $1,000: Stacy Rambo, homemaker, Port Angeles.

■   $500: Eric Foth, retired, Port Angeles.

■   $400: G.C. Baiz, information unavailable, Port Angeles.
PORT ANGELES — A proposed 51 percent Clallam County Fire District No. 2 levy increase on the Nov. 5 ballot has sparked a war of words and money between ballot measure proponents and Olympic Ambulance.

Bill Littlejohn, owner of the Sequim-based emergency services provider, said the hike would end up hurting his business, which covers emergency calls in the district.

Called a levy lid lift, Proposition 1 would increase the existing Fire District No. 2 levy from 76 cents of property tax for each $1,000 of assessed valuation to $1.15 per $1,000.

That’s an increase of, for example, $78 annually on a $200,000 home.

Passage of the measure — it needs a simple majority, with ballots mailed out Oct. 16 — would guarantee continued funding for three of Fire District No. 2’s four firefighter-paramedic positions, Fire Chief Sam Phillips said.

It also would establish 24-hour, seven-days-a-week medical and firefighter coverage for the district’s 9,500 residents.

Expenditures for the fourth paramedic would be covered by not filling an assistant fire chief position.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grant funding for the four positions runs out next year.

“They want to replace our service with their new service,” Littlejohn said.

“That is the only area in Clallam County where we are allowed to use paramedics.

“It really puts us in a bind trying to keep our paramedics current if they don’t have any field work to do,” Littlejohn said.

“I would lose everything in District 2,” he added, saying that the loss of revenue to his company “would sting.”

Phillips said its emergency services are superior to Olympic Ambulance’s.

“We can do it better. We can do it faster. We can do it cheaper,” he said.

“They are trying to keep an artificial lid on the free enterprise system so they can control it.

Fire District No. 2 covers an 85-square-mile area that includes the communities of Deer Park, Black Diamond, Dry Creek, Lake Sutherland and Gales Addition east of Port Angeles, where the district gets the majority of its calls.

Having four district firefighter-paramedics has resulted in lowering response times by 2 minutes, 32 seconds compared with a year ago despite a 10 percent overall increase in those calls, Phillips said.

Olympic Ambulance “is not meeting the needs in the community,” Phillips said, citing the 53 calls the company did not respond to from 2009 through 2011.

“Every once in awhile, everything hits you at once,” Littlejohn responded.

Olympic Ambulance has 30 ambulances, two stationed in Port Angeles.

The company added the second vehicle in early 2012.

“You have to adjust,” Littlejohn said of the call-load.

Phillips said Olympic Ambulance did not respond to 16 calls through August, eight of which were in April.

“Emergency services shouldn’t be for profit,” Phillips said.

“One missed call can mean the difference between life and death.

“If I didn’t respond to a call at all, shame on Fire District 2.

“I can’t put my people in my fire district at risk.

“It’s just not acceptable.”

Phillips also stressed that the district’s grant-funded positions each fulfill two roles.

“These are not just paramedics; they are firefighters,” Phillips said.

Phillips said a March 2012 fire district Citizen Advisory Committee report that included Phillips’ participation recommended the district “strive to attain Advanced Life Support within the next five years.”

That service is provided only by paid paramedics.

The committee also recommended that the district increase its reserve funds for capital improvements or relocate fire stations with the goal of providing living quarters, which would be used for 24-hour coverage.

Eric Foth, campaign manager for Citizens Against Fire District 2 Levy, instead pointed to this assertion in the report:

“The district is serving the citizens adequately and should maintain current service types with basic life support for the time being.”

For 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage, a paramedic would be matched up with a firefighter-emergency medical technician in a 24-hour shift, and the fourth paramedic would be a relief person, he added.

The district now responds to about 1,000 calls a year, Phillips said.

Olympic Ambulance’s District 2 transport-related calls account for $200,000 to $210,000 of company net revenue and 410 of about 2,000 Port Angeles-area calls handled by the company, which also covers Sequim, Thurston County and Mason County, company Executive Director Kim Droppert said.

Of those calls in the district, 348 required the advanced-life-support services provided by Olympic Ambulance paramedics.

Littlejohn said if the levy increase is approved, Olympic Ambulance also would lose the lucrative, long-distance, advanced-life-support transports from Olympic Medical Center to Seattle hospitals because his paramedics would lose their certifications.

Paramedics must show they have done specific procedures a certain number of times to retain certification.

The levy’s impact on OMC is being reviewed, hospital CEO Eric Lewis said.

“A strong ambulance service serving a rural community is a critical need for OMC and the communities we serve,” he said.

The company is the sole regular provider of transportation to Seattle-area facilities and makes alternate arrangements for transportation when necessary, hospital spokeswoman Bobby Beeman said.

The levy proposal is “a very selfish thing, if you ask me,” Littlejohn said.

“It’s just looking at what the chief wants to do, just building up his little kingdom.”

Foth’s take on the levy: “With this 51 percent tax increase, now the burden is on the taxpayers.”

But fire district Commissioner Tom Martin said the district has not had a lid lift in 29 years.

“We’re at the point where we can’t take just the fire funds and use them for EMS also,” Martin said.

Littlejohn said he did not intend to “badmouth” the proposal.

“I am only out to protect my territory,” he said.

Said Phillips: “I never wanted to get into the fight against Olympic Ambulance.”

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 28. 2013 6:07PM
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