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Will Kent fire department, fire district merge?

Kent firefighters extinguish a residential fire May 15 on 116th S.E. in Kent. The Kent Fire Department may in the future be merged with Fire District 37, should a proposal make it to a ballot measure next year. - Charles Cortes, Kent Reporter
Kent firefighters extinguish a residential fire May 15 on 116th S.E. in Kent. The Kent Fire Department may in the future be merged with Fire District 37, should a proposal make it to a ballot measure next year.
— image credit: Charles Cortes, Kent Reporter

(Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 23 to correct the estimated property tax rate increase for the owner of a $240,000 house in Fire District 37 under a proposed regional fire authority.)

The Kent City Council will vote Dec. 8 whether to ask voters next spring to approve forming a regional fire authority merging the Kent Fire Department and King County Fire District 37.

Voters in Kent and Fire District 37, which serves Covington and parts of unincorporated King County next to Kent and Covington, could see a measure on the April 27, 2010 ballot.

Jim Schneider, fire chief of the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37, presented the proposal Tuesday at a Kent City Council workshop.

"We have confidence in the plan," Schneider said in an interview after the workshop. "We've worked on this for 5 1/2 years. We want to give citizens the chance to determine the level of service they want."

Schneider said a regional fire authority would be able to levy a property tax as well as a new fire-benefit charge, to help provide more stable funding and improve response times to medical and fire calls.

Council President Debbie Raplee said in a phone interview Wednesday the Council remains uncertain about whether to put the regional fire authority measure to a public vote.

"I really don't know," Raplee said about the potential outcome of the Council's vote Dec. 8 on the proposal. "There is support on both sides on why we should go forward or why we shouldn't."

Raplee said she was unsure about how to vote.

"A lot of cities across the nation are moving that direction," Raplee said of forming a regional authority. "There are benefits to the city to have it happen and there are also disadvantages. We'll make that decision on Dec. 8."

The Fire District 37 board of commissioners voted 3-0 Monday to send the measure to voters. If the Council also approves the proposal, the measure would require 60 percent supermajority approval rate by voters because of the new fire benefit fee that would be added to the tax picture.

"I applaud the fire department for coming up with an alternative to be able to afford services," Councilman Ron Harmon said at the workshop.

Harmon added that the fire department needs more stations and personnel to keep the fire department credible. But he also said he wants city officials to be ready to address service problems if a regional fire authority isn't formed, especially since the measure needs the supermajority voter approval.

"I encourage the administration and fire department to have a Plan B if the regional fire authority is not approved," Harmon said.

The regional fire authority, under a law passed by the Washington Legislature in 2004 and updated in 2006, can levy a property tax as well as a fire-benefit fee. The fire-benefit charge would be a variable rate based on the square footage and the amount of service provided to each house or business.

Under such a fee, the owner of an 1,800-square foot house would pay less per year than the owner of a larger home. Owners of commercial properties and apartment complexes would pay higher fees because of the additional fire equipment, firefighters and volumes of calls needed to fight fires at those properties.

Owners of a commercial property would pay more for a fire that required 21 firefighters than a homeowner would pay for a fire that required 15 firefighters, Schneider said.

Currently, property owners in Fire District 37 pay $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Property owners in Kent pay a property tax that goes into a general fund, with a cost of about $1.64 per $1,000 of assessed value for the fire department. The city property tax would be reduced if the regional fire authority is approved and the city no longer needs to fund a fire department.

An exact cost of taxes would be part of any proposal sent to voters for approval.

Initial estimates by fire officials show the owner of a $240,000 house in Kent would pay about $148 more per year under a regional fire authority because of the fire benefit fee. The owner of a similar house in Fire District 37 would pay about $28 more per year.

Fire officials hope voters are willing to pay the extra cost in order to get better service.

"We'll get to them faster and get more people there quickly to treat a heart attack or put out a fire," said Greg Markley, a fire department battalion chief who helped compile the financial plan for the regional fire authority.

The city of Kent currently provides firefighters to Fire District 37 through a contract agreement that started in 1973. The district owns the fire equipment. Fire District 37 provides emergency services to Covington through a contract agreement.

If Kent and District 37 merge, budgets, capital facility plans, service contracts and maintenance costs can be more cost effective than under the contract agreement, fire officials said.

Residents of Auburn, Algona and Pacific became the first in the state to form a regional fire authority when they approved a proposal in 2006. Seventy percent of voters approved the measure. The Valley Regional Fire Authority now provides medical and fire service to the three cities.

For more information, go to www.ci.kent.wa.us/fire and click on regional fire authority.

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