Kent and Covington voters are approving a Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority levy to boost property taxes to help maintain and fund operations.
As of Tuesday night, the measure had 55.84 percent approval with 7,245 votes. A total of 44.16 percent (5,730 votes) were against the property tax hike, according to King County Elections.
“We’re very pleased to see the positive results,” said Puget Sound Fire Battalion Chief Greg Markley. “We would have liked to see a greater turnout, but it is what it is. We as a department were very transparent in our actions. We are pleased that it will let us continue to support the operations we are already doing and it will provide a shift with the reduction in the fire benefit charge.”
Just 16.6 percent (13,478) of the 81,183 registered voters in the Puget Sound Fire area had returned ballots as of Tuesday’s count, according to King County Elections.
Fifty-seven percent of voters rejected a similar measure in April 2018. This year’s measure will allow Puget Sound Fire to restore its property tax levy to $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That rate has dropped each year because of the state’s 1 percent limit on property tax increases and the jumps in property values over the last eight years. This year’s rate is 71 cents per $1,000.
Puget Sound Fire makes up the property tax shortfall by raising the fire benefit charge on properties. The fire benefit charge is 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.
With the passage of the property tax hike, Puget Sound Fire will reduce the fire benefit charge on each property owner by the amount of the tax hike so that residents will pay the same amount next year as this year.
The state limits fire benefit charges to paying for no more than 60 percent of the operations budget. Puget Sound Fire hit the 51 percent mark this year on its $51 million budget.
“Without the levy lid lift, we will hit 60 percent in 2021 or 2022,” Puget Sound Fire Chief Matt Morris told the Kent City Council during a presentation in June at City Hall. “If that does not pass and we hit 2022 without a re-authorization of a levy lid lift, we will be in a deficit budget in 2023, which would impact services (with cuts).”
With approval of the levy lid lift, the fire benefit charge will drop to 41 percent of the budget. The measure also will allow Puget Sound Fire to make annual increases greater than the 1 percent allowed by the state by using the annual consumer price index (CPI) for Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue as reported in July of each year for each of the five succeeding years. That would have allowed a 3.3 percent rate increase in 2018.
Morris said the higher property tax and annual increases are needed to cover rising costs. The 1 percent state cap on property tax increases limited the budget to about a $200,000 increase this year. Morris said medical costs alone will go up by about $1 million next year.
For property owners, Morris said someone with an 1,800-square-foot home this year pays about $205 for a fire benefit charge and $174 in property taxes for a total of $379. Under the $1.00 per $1,000 higher property tax rate, the fire benefit charge would be about $132 and property taxes would be $247 for the same total of $379.
“They would simply be paying more in property taxes and less in the fire benefit charge,” Morris said.
Voters in 2010 approved the formation of the regional fire authority 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 and are now part of the Puget Sound RFA. The cities of SeaTac and Maple Valley contract with Puget Sound Fire for services, but were not part of the original regional fire authority.