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Police, Fire Departments to Pay More for Emergency Dispatch

The budget, which the Skagit 911 Board of Directors passed by a vote of 4-3, includes average fee increases for law enforcement agencies of 28% and for fire departments of 21%.

dispatch center
(TNS) - The Skagit 911 Board of Directors narrowly passed a 2023 budget Wednesday that calls for significant fee increases for local law enforcement agencies and fire departments.

The budget, which passed by a vote of 4-3, includes average fee increases for law enforcement agencies of 28% and for fire departments of 21%, though most of the fire department fees are covered by the county.

Skagit County Emergency Medical Services covers 85% of fire department fees through a voter-approved EMS levy.

The county's emergency dispatch center needs more revenue primarily to cover negotiated 9% salary increases, according to Executive Director Helen Rasmussen .

Rasmussen presented two budget options to the board Wednesday — one that fully funds the center's 37 dispatcher positions, and one that reduced staff spending by 8% in exchange for smaller increases to law enforcement agencies and fire departments.

The board passed the fully-funded option.

Rasmussen said the second option reflects the staffing situation at Skagit 911. The agency hasn't been fully staffed in years due to high turnover and a lengthy six-month training process for new dispatchers.

On the off chance the center is able to reach full staffing, Rasmussen said its large cash reserves could have covered the cost.

"The only reason that I would be comfortable doing this is based on that large ... fund balance," she said.

Mount Vernon Fire Chief Bryan Brice, who asked that the fully-funded option be put to a vote, said he felt Skagit 911 has other things on which to spend its fund reserves.

While not necessarily opposed to cutting staffing costs, he said fund reserves should be committed to projects and upgrades the dispatch center needs. The center has several capital funding commitments, and plans to fund a new annex building.

"If we know we have fund balance, let's use it for that," he said.

Earlier this year, the board considered asking voters for a sales tax increase, but failed to get approval from each of the member governments as required.

At the time, Rasmussen said the alternative to a sales tax was likely higher user fees.

"That's what we have to be willing to accept," Brice said.

Even with 25% to 30% increases, the 911 user fees are far lower than what law enforcement and fire agencies would have to pay to handle their own dispatching, he said.

Going forward, he said he wants to discuss properly funding new equipment, and setting goals for the reserves. Other board members agreed, and Rasmussen said she plans to work on this in 2023.

Board membership is made up of local city and county officials, meaning the decision-makers represent the governments being asked to pay more.

Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton advocated for the smaller budget, saying it is unrealistic to assume the center will be at full staffing next year.

"To budget for 37 dispatchers on Jan. 1 is an error on our part," he said.

Sexton said hiking up user fees at the same time that Skagit 911 has high cash reserves is unfair to Burlington and the others who pay the user fees.

"I think some of that fund balance should be credited back to the user agencies," he said. "I think there's an ability to (fund equipment replacement) and still maintain a healthy reserve balance."

Sexton was the board's most vocal opponent to a sales tax measure, and Burlington was the only member government to oppose putting it on the ballot.

— Reporter Brandon Stone :, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH


©2022 the Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.