Is new fire agency in Kent’s future?

City of Kent and King County Fire District 37 officials continue to give serious thought to forming a regional fire authority. A regional fire authority would be able to levy a property tax as well as a new fire benefit fee to help provide more stable funding and increase response times to medical and fire calls, officials from both entities say.

Kent Fire Department's Hazmat Team

Kent Fire Department's Hazmat Team

City, fire district officials discuss regional entity

City of Kent and King County Fire District 37 officials continue to give serious thought to forming a regional fire authority.

A regional fire authority would be able to levy a property tax as well as a new fire benefit fee to help provide more stable funding and increase response times to medical and fire calls, officials from both entities say. The fire authority, as it’s currently being considered, would serve Kent, Covington and portions of unincorporated King County.

Although only in the planning stages, a regional fire authority would merge the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37, which serves Covington and unincorporated King County.

Voters must approve a regional fire authority. The proposal, if approved by the Kent City Council and Fire District 37 board in late 2009, isn’t slated to go to voters until November 2010. If passed by voters, the regional fire authority would be implemented in 2011.

“We have a good system,” said Kent Fire Chief Jim Schneider, who also oversees Fire District 37, in an interview Thursday. “But our number of runs are increasing and we have a large area to cover with the minimum resources. We’ve got to do something different.”

A planning committee, comprised of elected officials from Kent, Covington and Fire District 37, met for the first time in July. A proposal to form a regional fire authority is slated to go to the Kent City Council and Fire District 37 board for approval in the fall of 2009, Schenider said.

“We’ve done about 14 months of exploration, including citizen input and now we’re in the planning phase,” Schneider said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it. But we’ll look at the plan to see if it’s something we want.”

The city of Kent 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, said Larry Rabel, a Kent fire captain and strategic planner.

“We’ve had a lot of population growth and that’s put us backwards a bit,” Rabel said. “With the funding we have in place, we can’t fulfill what the citizens want.”

Fire officials want to improve response times to as fast as seven minutes throughout Kent and Fire District 37. City surveys show residents also want faster response times.

“Our goal is if someone makes a 911 call, our first unit is there within seven minutes,” Rabel said Thursday. “We’re not meeting that overall, although in lots of areas we do.”

Currently, the average response time to medical calls is 8 minutes, 13 seconds. The average response time to fire calls is 9 minutes, 4 seconds.

Kent City Council members Debbie Raplee, Tim Clark and Ron Harmon are members of the Regional Fire Authority Planning Committee along with Fire District 37 commissioners Bill Stewart and Allan Barrie and Covington Mayor Margaret Harto.

“It’s a possibility to go ahead and put the fire department in a position where they can tax based on need,” Harmon said in a phone interview Friday. “They will have their own taxing authority. The fire department will not have to compete with all of the departments in the city to meet their objectives and response time.”

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

Under such a fee, an owner of an 1,800-square foot house would pay proportionally 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 and volumes of calls needed to fight fires at those properties.

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. 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 financial costs have yet to be figured out by the planning committee, Rabel said. But initial estimates indicate that the regional fire authority could keep taxes similar to what residents pay now.

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

Kent is one of a number of cities statewide that are contemplating whether to form regional fire authorities.

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

Edmonds and Bremerton are among other cities looking at switching to regional fire authorities.

The planning committee will consider whether to retain the Kent Fire Department as the name of a proposed new regional fire authority.

Learn more

The next meeting of the Regional Fire Authority Planning Committee takes place 5:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at Fire Station 75, 15635 S.E. 272nd St. It is open to the public.

For more information, go to and click on regional fire authority.

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