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North Bend and Fire District 38 plan future together

When it comes to fire protection, North Bend and King County Fire Protection District No. 38 are joined at the hip. Leaders of both public entities met Aug. 31 to discuss their future together.

"No matter which way we go, we've got to go together," said North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing.

Hearing said the city and fire district are better off receiving fire protection and emergency services from Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) but could, if necessary, return to running their own department.

The district and North Bend receive fire and emergency service from EFR, a partnership of the cities of Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend along with fire districts 10 and 38. North Bend and District 38 joined the consortium in 1999. Prior to that, the district and North Bend operated their own fire station.

According to North Bend calculations, it cost about $1.7 million to run the North Bend fire station in 2005. Of that, North Bend provided $675,765 and District 38 provided $934,000 - leaving them $90,377 short, an amount covered by the other EFR partners. Since 1999, the other partners have subsidized the operating costs for North Bend and District 38 a total of about $1.8 million, said Dave Gray, EFR finance director.

According to EFR's adopted funding model, North Bend ought to have paid $501,725 while District 38 should have kicked in nearly $1.2 million.

To make up the shortfall, District 38 commissioners are contemplating going to voters with a request to raise taxes. They plan to make a decision at their Sept. 6 meeting.

District 38 Commissioner Ron Pedee said commissioners are leaning strongly toward placing a levy rate increase to $1 per $1,000 assessed value on the Feb. 6, 2007, ballot. District residents currently pay 73 cents per $1,000 assessed value.

Voters shot down a proposed increase from 83 cents to $1.07 per $1,000 of assessed valuation with 63 percent "No" votes in November 2003. An increase to $1.50 proposed in September that would have increased services received 65 percent disapproval that same year. Since the current levy lid was approved in November 1990 at $1 per 1,000 assessed valuation, the rate per $1,000 has gone down each year as property values have risen. Voters denied increases in 1997, 1998, 1999 and the two in 2003.

Initiative 747, passed in 2001, limits taxing districts to raising the overall amount they may collect to 1 percent each year. However, escalating property values mean the tax per $1,000 of assessed value decreases each year. Individual property owners may see their tax bill rise, but the total amount collected by a taxing district, such as District 38, only goes up by 1 percent, plus taxes collected on new construction. Last year, the district raised about $28,000 from property taxes on new construction.

Unless the levy rate increase is approved, District 38 residents run the risk of being booted out of EFR. The district's contract is up for renegotiation at the end of 2007. EFR chief Lee Soptich earlier said the other members of the partnership are facing their own financial crunches and are looking to District 38 and North Bend to come up with their fair share.

Gray said every dollar members contribute toward their operating costs helps defray the overhead expenses shared by each partner - such as administration costs. By pooling resources, each partner becomes more efficient, about 21 percent more efficient, than if they provided service on their own, he said. If a partner, such as North Bend or District 38, were kicked out, overhead costs would go up for the remaining partners, Gray said.

North Bend treasurer Elena Montgomery and Stanley Lewis, city accounting and technology coordinator, compared the costs of providing fire service at the North Bend fire station to the city of Snoqualmie's fire department to gauge how effective fire service could be provided without EFR.

"If you do the math, when all is said and done, the cost is about the same," Montgomery said.

The North Bend station cost $1.7 million in 2005; Snoqualmie's cost $1.34 million in 2005. The difference is in the number of full-time firefighters kept on duty. EFR keeps three firefighters on duty 24 hours a day while Snoqualmie keeps two firefighters on duty around the clock. The North Bend fire station has the equivalent of 15.68 full-time employees, versus 11.53 for Snoqualmie. That's an average salary, with benefits, of $83,015 a year for EFR employees versus $75,030 in Snoqualmie. However, Snoqualmie pays more for overhead, forking out $247,464 versus $136,040 for EFR's North Bend station.

"If you want to get a station that costs the same as Snoqualmie's, you've got to dump a firefighter [from each shift]," Hearing said.

Pedee said North Bend and District 38 stand to lose much more than just a three-person crew.

"What you get by being an Eastside Fire and Rescue partner is all the assets of Eastside Fire and Rescue," Pedee said. "That's a completely different benefit worth paying for."

They also discussed how to better share costs and responsibilities between North Bend and District 38, such as the city joining the fire district, which would allow District 38 to directly tax city residents insuring all property owners are taxed at the same rate for fire protection. City residents currently pay about $1.22 per $1,000 assessed valuation for fire protection service. They could also create a regional fire authority that would accomplish many of the same things but would require slightly different organization.

Impending annexations of the unincorporated areas of King County now governed by District 38 into North Bend would also affect taxes and property owners. With each annexation - the city's urban growth area runs from the existing borders to the "Truck Town" area at Interstate 90's Exit 34 - the fire district loses part of its tax base. That means the remaining property owners get stuck with higher taxes. If the first phase of annexations goes through as planned, those remaining in the district could see their tax rate jump more than five cents per $1,000 to 78 cents per $1,000 assessed property value. State law caps the fire district tax rate at $1 per $1,000, so even if the city were to annex enough property to boost taxes above the $1 limit, the rate would stop at $1, and the total collected would go down.

Montgomery said the city doesn't know what the exact effect the annexations would have on the tax rate. The city and fire district decided to meet again Sept. 28 after further researching the effect of annexations and other financial aspects regarding fire service for the two governments. Normally, they meet annually. However, with the number of issues they now face, they decided to meet monthly to hash through them.

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