Fire District 38 ponders tax hike

For years, the other partners in Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) have subsidized the cost of providing emergency services to North Bend and Fire District No. 38. They can't afford to continue the subsidy anymore; unless fire district voters approve paying more taxes, the district likely will be booted out of the partnership, fire officials said.

If that happens, there's no way the district can provide the same level of protection, even if it tried to do so with the levy lift they want, said Ron Pedee, district fire commissioner.

Fire commissioners hosted a public hearing Aug. 16 to gather input on a possible levy rate increase. Pedee said commissioners now strongly lead woward placing an 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.

However, before fire commissioners ask for the increase, they want to gather public input and expain why they feel the rate hike is needed, Pedee said. He said a disconnect between voters and the fire district likely led to the defeat of proposed levy rate hikes in 2003. Only a handful of district residents attended the meeting. Most asked questions and seemed convinced of the need outlined by commissioners.

Pat Young, who opposed prior proposed levy rate increases, said she isn't convinced the district really needs the money. She said fire protection should be part of the core government function, provided without extra taxes.

"The rub comes in because King County funds a lot of money on stuff they don't need to do, leaving vital services to be paid for by citizens," Young said. Rather than using scare tactics of reduced fire protection and emergency services to get voters to pay more taxes, the county should use the money it already has in its general fund, but spends on unnecessary things, to fully fund needed services like fire protection, she said.

Like-minded 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 a 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 have denied increases in 1997, 1998, 1999 and the two in 2003.

Pedee said taxes are a complex subject that many people don't understand. The advantage to a separate fire protection levee is politicians can't put money guaranteed for fire protection into a pet project like they could if it were in the general funds budget, he said.

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 mill rate, 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.

"Taxes may have increased 10 percent, but we haven't gotten it," Pedee said.

Meanwhile, expenses have risen well beyond the 1 percent cap on tax increases. The cost of services has risen 7.5 percent since 2000. The Seattle inflation rate was 2.5 percent, basic wages rose 3.6 percent and medical insurance rates skyrocketed 21.9 percent in the same time period. The cost of gasoline to run the fire engines and ambulances likewise has soared, but the money available to pay the bills hasn't, commissioners said.

"We're basically resetting the clock," said Steve Parsons, fire district commissioner.

The two areas have about the same number of calls each year; in 2005, North Bend had 610 calls and District 38 had 596. The district is geographically larger than the city and the total assessed property value is about double that of the city's. It will cost nearly $1.9 million to provide fire and emergency services to North Bend and District 38 in 2006. North Bend contributes about $700,000 to the cost while Fire District No. 38 pays nearly $1 million. Combined, the two entities pay about $1.65 million. The difference is covered by the other partners in EFR. The agency has a total budget of about $18 million, 11 percent of which comes from District 38.

"This sweetheart deal for us is going to go away when the contract ends," Pedee said.

With the proposed increase, District 38 could collect about $1.4 million. That breaks down to an increase of $8.44 per month for a $380,000 home.

Subtracting delinquent taxes and money for district-only expenses, the proposed levy would net about $1.1-1.2 million for EFR services.

The cities of Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend, along with fire districts 10 and 38, partnered to form EFR. District 38 is part of the EFR consortium that serves Carnation, Issaquah, North Bend, Sammamish, Preston, May Valley, Tiger Mountain and Wilderness Rim. District 38's contract with EFR ends at the end of 2007. The fate of the levee will affect the future of the district's relationship with the coalition, commissioners said.

EFR Chief Lee Soptich said when the contract ends, the other partners aren't likely to continue supporting District 38.

"Money has gotten tight for all the partners now," he said. In the past, the cost-savings allowed by pooling resources - which Soptich said was about 21 percent compared to each entity funding its own department - made the other partners more willing to support District 38. A $1 per $1,000 rate makes the fire district an equal partner, "So they don't have their hat in their hand," Soptich said.

Were the district to try going it alone, it wouldn't be able to replicate the level of service, even at the $1 per $1,000 rate, Pedee said. For one thing, the district would have to buy new equipment. It only owns one engine, the old engine at the Wilderness Rim station. District 10 owns the ambulance and water tender in use at the North Bend fire station and Sammamish owns the fire pumper truck at the station. They would have to be replaced if the district is ousted.

The vehicles the district owned prior to joining EFR in 1999 were out of date and sold as surplus. It was more cost-effective to share equipment and pay shared maintenance costs than to have each partner buy and maintain its own equipment. District 38 would get to keep its portion of the maintenance pot if it left, but it would barely cover the cost of a used engine, Pedee said.

The level of service would also drop because the district, on its own, couldn't afford to keep three people on duty at all times, commissioners said. They'd have to cut back to two people, which means they'd have to wait for mutual aid backup before entering a burning building, they said. Under state law, if firefighters enter a burning building, which can't be done alone, at least one firefighter must be present outside the structure.

The cost of fire service

per $1,000 assessed valuation

Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) partners

Fire District No. 38       73 cents

Fire District No. 10      $1, plus 50 cents for the Fire

                        Benefit Charge

North Bend            $1.22

Sammamish            62 cents

Issaquah            $1.12

Neighbors of EFR

Maple Valley            $1.41, seeking a lid lift to $1.50

Snoqualmie            $1.10, plus 22 cents to pay off


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