Members of the public often ask questions of North County Fire & EMS personnel and board members. As it prepares for a fire levy lid lift request this fall, the Fire Authority wanted to share its financial philosophy.
Fire Commissioner Ric Cade, Fire Chief John Cermak and Finance Manager Randy Krumm each shared their role when it comes to financial management for the Fire Authority.
One responsibility of the Board of Fire Commissioners is to set policy for the agency, which provides fire suppression and emergency medical service to 25,000 people over 110 square miles.
Commissioner Cade, who has served on the North County Fire & EMS Board since 2016, said he believes the Fire Board has a responsibility to spend tax revenue as responsibly as possible and provide value for those tax dollars.
“We want to provide the highest level of service possible within budget,” Cade said. “The issue is that when call volumes increase, costs increase. Then we have to make a hard decision: Do we cut service levels, or ask voters to increase funding?”
Because call volumes for the Fire Authority have increased 37 percent since 2013, (and costs with it), fire commissioners recently approved a resolution for the November General Election asking voters to consider a 14-cent fire levy lid lift.
If approved, Cade said the fire levy would return to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, the same rate approved by voters in 2008.
The lid lift would last for six years and cost the average ($330,000 property value) homeowner about $49 per year ($4.08 per month). The money would be used to hire up to six emergency personnel and purchase supporting apparatus for responding to calls.
Chief Cermak takes direction from the fire commissioners and strives to implement their requested policies. He said the commissioners look to revenue requests only after the Fire Authority has exhausted all other efforts to stretch tax dollars further.
“We do a good job of partnering with neighboring agencies to share costs,” Cermak said. “We also have a strong record of earning grants. But grants eventually run out and cannot be considered a stable revenue source.”
When it comes to grants, North County Fire secured a $400,000 grant to replace all breathing apparatus for its firefighters. It also acquired a $900,000 grant to maintain staffing levels during the last recession. Chief Cermak said some funding from the levy lid lift will go to maintain these positions. He also has looked for new revenue streams to offset higher costs.
The Fire Authority had a successful partnership with the city of Stanwood and city voters approved annexing to the agency last year. Now Fire Authority is partnering with the Arlington Fire Department on firefighter training and job sharing. Cermak said such programs save money for taxpayers and improve emergency services for both communities.
The Affordable Care Act passed several years ago allows fire districts to recoup more of what it costs to transport a patient to an area hospital.
For local residents, the fire agency bills insurance companies for this cost, or forgives the expense if a patient does not have insurance. However, 40,000 visitors a year travel through the Fire Authority district to Camano Island, a popular tourist destination.
“In the past, our taxpayers were subsidizing visitors if they had a medical emergency,” Cermak said. “Now we bill visitors for the actual cost of this expense, which provides additional revenue for staffing, apparatus and equipment.”
n Finance Manager Krumm is responsible for managing all revenue and expenditures for the Fire Authority. He is the first finance manager the agency has had, and he says the position reflects a commitment to sound financial practices.
“The Fire Authority had grown to the point it needed a person dedicated to managing revenue and expenditures on a daily basis,” Krumm said. “We operate under a balanced budget and have passed all recent financial audits by the state.”
His financial philosophy has been to ensure the agency has adequate reserves for daily operations as well as capital items. He believes paying cash for fire engines or ambulances is better for taxpayers than financing these purchases and paying interest charges.
He said North County Fire & EMS maintains three months of operating reserves and an apparatus replacement fund for just these reasons.
“This isn’t the Fire Authority’s money. It belongs to our taxpayers and we are stewards of their tax dollars to save lives and property,” Krumm said. “That is the core financial philosophy by which we operate.”