News

EFR plans to raise levy lid in future

NORTH BEND - Officials of the fire department serving North Bend will be working to garner public support in coming months in order to lift its levy lid, a move they said is necessary in order to maintain the department's current level of service.

Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) District 38 officials met last week to discuss how to lift the district's levy rate of 76 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $1. Such a lift requires public approval, a daunting task since the district has not passed a levy lid lift since 1990.

"It [a tax rate of 76 cents] is not going to be enough money to pay our bills," said Ron Pedee, a commissioner with the district.

EFR is an Issaquah-based consortium of Eastside emergency service districts that formed in 1999. North Bend had its own fire department until 1994 when it, along with Snoqualmie, joined the King County Fire District. That same year District 38, which served the unincorproated areas around North Bend, joined District 10. Snoqualmie broke off a few years after and formed its own fire department, while District 10 and Issaquah later consolidated to form EFR, along with North Bend and District 38 in 1999. Sammamish joined in 2000.

District 38 serves its area and North Bend with a station in downtown North Bend and a volunteer station in the Wilderness Rim neighborhood. The 2005 cost for running the North Bend station is estimated to be $1.78 million, with North Bend paying $700,000 for its service and District 38 paying $980,000; leaving a deficit for the station of around $100,000.

In recent years, the district has had financial challenges that Pedee said may threaten its partnership in EFR. Pedee said the district charges less than any of the county's 28 different fire service districts, and that low rate is starting to catch up with it. Two levy lid lift votes failed in 2003, and labor and operating costs have outgrown the district's ability to collect revenue. At the beginning of 2005, the district had to stop contracting out its first-response services with the Snoqualmie Fire Department for its coverage area closer to Snoqualmie.

To get the numbers up, the district will try to get the levy lid lifted by voters to $1. While such a lift would be a more than 30-percent increase, it would be only an additional $5-$10 a month per house, Pedee said. For an average house in its area (valued at $383,000), the district currently collects $290 a year. That would increase to $383 with a $1 levy, an addition of $7.69 a month.

The $1 levy would still be less than what homeowners within the North Bend city limits pay, which is $1.30. Although North Bend citizens pay more for the same service, city administrator George Martinez said there is no better deal for North Bend. Martinez said that the $700,000 North Bend pays for fire service now is much more preferable to the estimated $1.7 million it would cost to run its own stand-alone department, and he hopes District 38 can stay in EFR for the benefit of everyone involved.

"It's unfortunate [those who live in District 38 but have voted against levy lifts don't] understand the value of what they have," Martinez said. "I don't see a better way."

Moreover, that $1.30 is still less than the average that all EFR districts pay, according to EFR business manager David Gray. Each city and district within EFR pays a different rate (District 10 pays nearly $1.50) and if all the costs were added together, the average rate would be $1.32. Putting those numbers side by side, however, is not the best way to measure value and service, Gray said. Since each district has different assessed values and different needs, charging everyone a flat rate would not be fair. While charging different rates for the same service may seem unfair, the EFR consolidation model is the best way to get fire services, Gray said, since so many costs are shared.

"I've looked at a lot of models and this is the best one," he said.

To get public support for that model, district officials will be going to voters to emphasize the value the district provides, which, they said, is a depth of service no stand-alone department can match. Another thing the district's leaders said they would emphasize is what they are not, a King County department. The official name of the district is King County Fire Protection District 38, a name that leads some to think it is part of King County.

District leaders also said they plan to meet with local organizations that have successfully formed taxing districts or raised levy lids, such as the Si View Metropolitan Park District (which has similar boundaries as District 38 and North Bend). It also hopes to meet with local civic groups and organizations such as the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Snoqualmie Valley School District and homeowners groups to get popular support.

The district is not sure when it will put its levy on the ballot, but it may try to avoid placing one next to any future school district bond votes.

The district had tentatively planned to hold its next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 11. A set time and place has not yet been decided.

Editor Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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