Kent and Covington voters will decide on the Aug. 6 primary ballot whether to approve a Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority levy to increase property taxes and reduce fire benefit charges to maintain and adequately fund operations.
Fifty-seven percent of voters rejected a similar measure in April 2018. This year’s measure would 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 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.
But the catch for fire officials is the state limits fire benefit charges to paying for no more than 60 percent of the operations budget. Puget Sound Fire has 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 Tuesday at City Hall. “If that does not pass and we hit 2022 without a reauthorization of a levy lid lift, we will be in a deficit budget in 2023, which would impact services (with cuts).”
If voters approve the levy lid lift, the fire benefit charge would drop to 41 percent of the budget. If approved, the measure also would allow Puget Sound Fire to make annual increases by the greater of 1 percent 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 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.
After the presentation, the council voted 7-0 to approve a resolution to support the levy increase.
“As I see the numbers, my personal tax bill is not going to change one way or the other on this,” Councilmember Dennis Higgins said prior to the vote. “But the need for this levy lid lift is real because of some of the crazy laws that have been enacted in this state, mostly by the Tim Eyman initiatives, the 1 percent property tax cap is arbitrary.
“We have petitioned the Legislature year after year for them to index that to inflation, understanding that it was a poor system prior to that initiative where governments could levy more than the rate of inflation. But indexing property tax increases to the rate of inflation would in a large part eliminate the need for votes like this.”
Nobody spoke in opposition to the measure at the council meeting. Morris said nobody responded by the King County Elections deadline to oppose the levy in the Voters’ Pamphlet for the Aug. 6 ballot. King County Elections will mail primary ballots July 17.
“With the 1 percent property tax cap, that puts us on a structural deficit,” Morris said during an interview. “That limits 40 percent of our revenue to 1 percent or less and inflation was 3.6 percent last year so that’s a deficit we have to compensate somewhere and that comes out of the fire benefit charge.”
Despite the measure’s defeat two years ago, Morris remains confident voters will support the increase this year.
“I’m very hopeful,” he said. “I believe the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority provides exceptional services. … We recognize the fire authority is just part of the puzzle to keep the community safe and thriving, and we are part of that solution (along with police). I believe the community will support that piece that public safety is important to them, and it’s important for us to continue to provide them with excellent services.”
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 formed by voters.