Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority (RFA) is asking voters to approve a higher property tax rate in return for a lower fire benefit charge.
Voters in Kent and Covington will start receiving ballots this week from King County Elections for the April 24 special election that includes Proposition No. 1. If approved, the measure would raise the fire property tax levy to $1 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current rate of 77 cents per $1,000 assessed value. The ballot also includes Proposition A, a city of Kent measure to increase the utility tax to 8 percent from 6 percent to hire more police officers.
“This is to sustain what we have in our operations,” Puget Sound Fire Battalion Chief Greg Markley said during an interview last week. “This isn’t a money grab, it’s a rebalance.”
Fire officials and the Puget Sound Fire Governing Board want to rebalance how much of the $58 million operating and capital budget is funded by property taxes and how much by the fire benefit charge, a variable rate fee based on the square footage and the amount of resources needed to provide emergency services to each house or business. With the fire benefit charge, the owner of a large house or business pays a higher fee than the owner of a small home or business.
State law says that a fire benefit charge can be no more than 60 percent of an operating budget. Puget Sound Fire’s fire benefit charge covers 54.5 percent of the budget, Markley said.
“To prevent getting to 60 percent, we knew we would have to go back to voters,” he said.
Voters in 2010 approved the formation of the RFA with 72 percent in favor of funding the agency through a property tax levy and a new fire benefit charge. Previously, Kent funded its fire department through the city’s general fund. Covington and Fire District 37 contracted with Kent for services. The property tax levy started at $1 per $1,000 assessed value, but has dropped to 77 cents per $1,000 because of the state property tax limit of a 1 percent increase each year that has dropped the rate over the years as property values greatly increased.
Puget Sound Fire cannot raise the tax rate more than 1 percent without voter approval.
The new property tax rate increase of 23 cents per $1,000 assessed value would bring in about $5.1 million per year, Markley said.
“We will take that $5.1 million and give that back on the fire benefit charge,” Markley said.
So while property taxes will go up in 2019 if voters approve the measure, the fire benefit charge will drop.
The owner of a $319,000 house would pay about $319 per year under the higher tax rate, an increase of about $74. But that owner (based on a 2,263 square-foot-house) would see a $74 reduction in the fire benefit charge from about $273 to $199. The total bill would be about $518, based on 2018 property values.
Even with the higher property tax rate, Puget Sound Fire’s total bill of about $518 would rank lower than other fire agencies in the area, including Valley Regional Fire Authority ($608) and Renton RFA ($607), according to Puget Sound Fire documents.
Voters in 2016 approved a six-year extension of the RFA’s fire benefit charge with 64 percent in favor. Puget Sound Fire must seek voter approval every six years to continue the fire benefit charge.
As far as the property tax hike, Kent resident Eric Bernard wrote a statement in the Voters’ Pamphlet against the increase. He said the RFA isn’t properly assessing the fire benefit charge, even leaving entire neighborhoods without the fee.
“Lots of home owners continue to enjoy huge tax breaks while the rest of us Kent taxpayers are overcharged,” said Bernard, who runs a website that can be found with a Google search of “No fire benefit charge scheme.”
Bernard also said the RFA “governing” board has failed to protect the interests of Kent and Covington taxpayers.
In response, Jennifer Harjehausen, a supporter of the measure, wrote that the governance board of elected officials ensures the agency follows state and federal laws.
The RFA is overseen by a board that includes three Kent City Council members, three Fire District 37 commissioners, and one non-voting advisory board member from the cities of Covington and SeaTac.
The board unanimously approved in January sending the property tax hike measure to voters in order to help cover the increasing costs of providing services for improved fire protection operations, replacing apparatus and equipment, providing staffing and maintaining emergency medical service levels.
Puget Sound Fire also serves the city of SeaTac, but it contracts at about $10 million a year with the RFA for services, so residents there will not vote on the proposition, which requires a voter approval rate of 50 percent or higher.
Markley said he thinks voters will pass the tax hike to maintain services and in return for a lower fire benefit charge to help keep the RFA away from too high of a percentage of funds coming from the fee.
“I think they will see the value in it,” he said.
Markley said voters should be confident the fire benefit charge will drop if the measure passes.
“Thanks for putting the trust in us to be your financial stewards – at the direction of the governance board and Chief (Matthew Morris) – passing on the message that we are going to raise (the levy rate) back to $1 and give (funds) back on the fire benefit charge.”