Whatcom EMS tax levy wins by 40 votes – out of 107,019 cast

Whatcom County officials have certified local results of the Nov. 8 election, including local Proposition No. 2016-1, which raises property taxes to fund emergency medical services.

Voters approved the EMS levy by 40 votes out of 107,019 ballots cast for the measure, which required a 60 percent margin to pass, said Auditor Debbie Adelstein. Final tally was 64,252 to 42,767, a margin of 60.04 percent.

Adelstein said the final canvass showed that 77 percent of Whatcom County voters used ballot boxes placed around the county, instead of sending their ballots through the mail. She said that allowed for faster counting and quicker posting of election results.

“One of the things we noted was the high use of our drop boxes,” Adelstein said. “We were exceptionally pleased. It gave us the ability to stay current and get our results out as soon as we did.”

Turnout for the election was 82.56 percent, which Adelstein said is normal for a presidential election cycle.

Even though the EMS levy result was close, state law doesn’t allow for an automatic recount of ballot propositions, as is required with neck-and-neck contests involving candidates for public office, Adelstein said.

Brett Bonner, who was part of a group of residents opposing the measure, expressed disappointment at the loss Tuesday.

“They played on people’s fears that an ambulance wouldn’t come to their house in a timely manner,” Bonner said.

Bonner said foes of the measure, the Committee of Public Safety, raised about $6,000, and they won’t be able to raise the money required by law to front an official recount effort.

“I don’t think we’ll be coming up with $25,000,” he said, citing the figure that Adelstein said is required as a deposit against the cost of a recount at 25 cents per vote. Those funds are forfeited if the recount fails to change the outcome, and the group contesting the election could face higher fees.

Bonner also was critical of the Whatcom County Council, which last week approved a 1 percent property tax increase of its own – a measure that was vetoed Tuesday by County Executive Jack Louws. Bonner suspected that the County Council delayed its vote on the county tax hike until after the EMS levy was decided.

“It’s unfathomable that (the council) didn’t announce their plan before the EMS levy,” Bonner said. “If people had known that their taxes were going to be raised twice, they wouldn’t have voted for EMS.”

Proposition 1 is a six-year levy that will raise property taxes by 29.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, to fund a fifth paramedic ambulance and other benefits for countywide 911 calls requiring advanced life support. The increase will be added to residents’ 2017 tax bills.

Proponents formed a group, EMS Saves Lives, to support the measure, raising nearly $90,000, and it drew the support of a range of organizations, from the Washington State Nurses Association, Peace Health, to the Lummi Indian Business Council.

Bellingham Fire Department firefighter Robert Glorioso, president of Bellingham/Whatcom Firefighters Local 106 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, expressed gratitude that the measure passed. “On behalf of Whatcom County’s firefighters and paramedics, we are humbled by the support and will continue working hard to keep you safe,” Glorioso said in a statement late Monday.

Funding for Whatcom County EMS services came from four sources this year: $2.5 million from user fees (the bill for an ambulance ride); $2.3 million from a local sales tax increase approved by voters over a decade ago, at 10 cents per $100 purchase; $1.4 million from the Whatcom County general fund; and $1.1 million from the city of Bellingham general fund. Reserves are covering a $1 million shortfall.

Passing the levy will end contributions from the two general funds after it takes effect.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said the city plans to continue subsidizing the EMS system for the next year, and then adjust its annual contribution. City officials are in the process of considering the 2017-2018 budget. Louws said the county would end its funding immediately.

Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority and works within the Whatcom County EMS system.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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