Kent Council votes to recommend voter approval of new regional fire authority
By STEVE HUNTER
Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter
February 24, 2010 · 12:45 PM
The Kent City Council voted 6-0 Feb. 16 to recommend voters approve an April 27 ballot measure to form a regional fire authority merging the Kent Fire Department and King County Fire District 37.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson said prior to the vote that she talked to firefighters in other communities, including Auburn, that have regional fire authorities to find out whether the system works.
"I overwhelmingly heard about the economies of scale and the ability to do business as a separate fire authority that was very positive," Albertson said. "I know it is difficult to ask folks to support a ballot measure that seems like an additional tax. But if you look at all of the information, it is a much more fair tax than the way we are doing it."
Jim Schneider, fire chief of the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37, and his staff say they want the new organization in order to levy a property tax as well a new fire-benefit charge. The measures, they say, will help provide more stable funding for new fire stations, more firefighters and faster response times to medical and fire calls.
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.
The city of Kent currently provides firefighters to Fire District 37 (serving Panther Lake) through a contract agreement that started in 1973. The district owns the fire equipment. Fire District 37 provides emergency services to Covington through another contract agreement.
Just two people testified at the public hearing Feb. 16 before the Council vote.
Arlene Jensen, of Kent, wanted to know if the fire benefit charge on each house also takes into account whether a home has smoke alarms and fire extinguishers rather than just the square footage.
Schneider responded that credits are given to reduce the fire benefit charge if smoke alarms and sprinkler systems are installed in a home or business. If voters approve the ballot measure, property owners will receive a statement that details their fire benefit charge and they can appeal that charge to a regional fire authority review board if they notice credits were not given for smoke alarms or a sprinkler system.
Greg Markley, a Kent battalion chief who has helped lead the campaign to approve a regional fire authority, testified in front of the Council about the benefits of a new entity.
"We measure success in this business by how fast we can get to your house or to you when you most need us," Markley said. "It is our goal to not only sustain services but expand services. We have population increases and increasing response times and at the same time we haven't really increased our staff. We are in desperate need of another fire station in the valley so we can do a better job on how fast we get to you."
Councilwoman Deborah Ranniger said she expects a regional fire authority to improve service.
"The majority of us will not have our houses burning down but we may well call 911 for emergency medical service support," Ranniger said. "This regional fire authority gives us the ability to fund that level of medical support to the level our community expects and needs it. The Council has heard reports over the last couple of years about how response times are getting greater because of stretched resources and increased traffic. It's important to identify a way to assure our community that they are going to have the medical support they have come to expect and this will do that."
The April 27 measure would require 60 percent supermajority approval rate because of the new fire-benefit fee that would be added to the tax picture.
If approved by voters, the regional fire authority would begin July 1. Funding for the remainder of 2010 would still come from the city and fire district budgets.
Currently, property owners in Fire District 37 pay $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Homeowners in Kent pay a property tax that goes into a city 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.
The fire authority would levy a property tax of $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed valued and levy a fire benefit charge.
Property taxes will go up in 2011 in order to pay for a regional fire authority. An exact cost of taxes will be part of the ballot measure sent to voters for approval. Fire officials plan to post within the next few days at www.ci.kent.wa.us/fire several examples of the the change in property taxes on houses in Kent and Fire District 37.
Initial estimates by fire officials in comparing property tax rates in 2010 to 2011 show the owner of a $240,000 house in Kent would pay about $148 more per year in 2011 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.
The new organization would be called the Kent Fire Department.Contact Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter Steve Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-872-6600, ext. 5052.