As population density increases on the Key Peninsula, the need for fire suppression and prevention will continue to grow. To address those needs, Key Peninsula’s Fire District No. 16 will ask voters for support to collect more property tax money than currently allowed by Initiative 747, or a “levy lid lift,” on this fall’s ballot. The district sees the operating costs outpacing the property tax revenues. When the levy lid is lifted — if the measure passes — the fire district will add as many as 10 firefighters including paramedics. This would bring to 27 the number of shift personnel, supported by about 30 community volunteers, to serve the entire Key Peninsula population. The new staffing level would increase the minimum number of paid career staff per shift from five to at least seven.
In the June KP News, Chief Tom Lique discussed the purchase of nearly $2 million in equipment after the 2004 levy passed. Lique said, “Because of initiative 747…a 1 percent cap (or lid) makes it very difficult for the department to meet the increases in the cost of providing services.”
He explained, “If this lid lift fails, a 2007 increase of 1 percent allows our $3.9 million budget to increase $39,000. This amount does not keep up with the increased financial demands on the department. The downward trending in the rate of collection continues until the voters’ approval to ‘lift the lid’ brings the collection rates back to their $1.50 and $0.50 levels. An approval on a lid lift in 2006 would mean an approximate $490,000 increase in suppression and $190,000 increase in EMS for the 2007 budget. In 2008 because of the 1 percent cap, our collection rate begins the downward trend again.”
The taxing authority is a complicated process, but the result is this: As communities grow and property values increase at unprecedented rates, the individual homeowner’s tax obligation to the fire district actually decreases.
Christina Bosch, administrative manager and district secretary, gave this example: “…In 2002, the district could only call for an additional 1 percent, ($64,154) in levied taxes. This amount may seem significant… but salaries and benefits increased by $75,000 and other operating costs increased by another 3 percent to 5 percent… It didn’t take long before the district was in a position that required us to approach the voters for lid lift levy. In September 2004…the district chose not to place an EMS lid lift levy before the voters…so (it) was held to the language of I-747 for the EMS portion of our budget. …The lid lift levy is good for one year only.”
When asked about the impact of a recent ruling of a King County Superior Court against I-747, she said, “Well, it’s not going to mean much….at least not in the near future. We are expecting this decision to be taken to the (state) Supreme Court, so we don’t expect final action to be taken in time to mean much of anything for the 2007 budget year.”
To keep pace, fire districts face requesting a lift on the tax lid every year or so, an action that brings the tax rate back to the maximum 1 percent level of assessed value, as allowed by law. Voters must be educated about the process each time, and somehow be convinced that their tax dollars are being used wisely.
During a recent FD-16 Board of Commissioners meeting, a resolution to place the lid lift measure on the ballot for the voters to decide passed 2 to 1, with recently elected Commissioner Allan Yanity voting against. He said he would not support a levy as long as the district was unwilling to examine its drug testing and fitness for duty policy, which he calls inadequate (see related story).
Intent to pursue a vote on the levy lid lift, a committee was formed to promote the passing of the measure. The Firefighters’ Local has requested to lead the effort, with paid and volunteer firefighters, paid administrative staff and one citizen currently serving on the committee, which invites interested members of the community to join them (the committee may be contacted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
State legislators have been asked to consider a bill to allow taxing districts to remove the levy lid up to six consecutive years without conducting such frequent elections, and have debated the measure during the past two sessions without passing a law. The fire district must pay for each election, a cost that approaches $60,000. Key Peninsula Fire District may be the only Pierce County district to ask for a lid lift in 2006, but other districts are planning a vote in 2007. Firefighters will ask for this consideration again during next year’s legislative session.
Previous Fire District No. 16 Commissioner Ed Taylor told the KP News, “I do support the levy lid lift and see a real need for additional personnel. If you obtain data about the number of calls each year and chart that for several years, you will see the increased demand for service. The district needs to add manpower to cover these calls.”
According to Christina Bosch, the district’s call volume has increased as much as 5 percent to 6 percent per year for the last three to four years and Gig Harbor Fire & Rescue needs to respond to FD-16 calls for “mutual aid” more and more. “It is our district personnel that our … citizens expect to see when they dial 911, not other districts,” she said.
Lique acknowledged that tensions among the commissioners could impact the levy outcome and said, “If the lid lift were not passed, the department would continue to function. However, the continued increase in expenses would create a situation where a future lid lift would be placed on the ballot for voter approval. Each ballot measure costs the department, so at some point, continued failures of a lid lift, with increases in expenses, would force decisions that could impact service delivery.”