Voters approving formation of new regional fire authority in Kent

Voters in Kent, King County Fire District 37 and Covington are overwhelming approving Proposition No. 1 to form a regional fire authority that would merge the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37. After the first count of ballots Tuesday night, Proposition No. 1 had received 10,859 (72.96 percent) yes votes and 4,025 (27.04 percent) no votes, according to the King County Elections officials. Ballots had to be postmarked by April 27 to count in the election.

Voters in Kent, King County Fire District 37 and Covington are overwhelming approving Proposition No. 1 to form a regional fire authority that would merge the

Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37.

Through Wednesday, Proposition No. 1 had received 12,225 (72.30 percent) yes votes and 4,684 (27.70 percent) no votes, according to the King County Elections officials. Ballots had to be postmarked by April 27 to count in the election.

A total of 16,921 voters mailed in ballots as of Wednesday. That number is 27.45 percent of the 61,640 registered voters.

“We always place customer service as our No. 1 priority and to see that three out of four voters believe in the fire department meant a lot,” said Jim Schneider, fire chief of the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37, in a phone interview Wednesday. “I think the best lies ahead for the fire department and the citizens made that happen. We will not let them down.”

Schneider and fire officials proposed the new regional fire authority in order to levy a property tax as well a new fire-benefit charge. Schneider said the fire departments need the new funding mechanism simply to keep the same level of service currently provided.

“This brings stability to the department to sustain services,” Schneider said.

The measure requires a 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.

Schneider expected slightly more than 60 percent of voters to approve the proposition.

“I thought it might be close, maybe in the low 60s,” Schneider said.

The 72 percent favorable vote could be a result of the strong relationships Kent and Fire District 37 firefighters have built with residents over the years, Schneider said.

“The citizens have confidence in the fire service we give them and trust in us,” he said. “That’s not just from the last few years but from work over many years. We value that trust.”

Fire District 37 serves Covington and parts of unincorporated King County next to Kent and Covington. The city of Kent currently provides firefighters to Fire District 37 through a contract agreement that started in 1973. The district owns the fire equipment.

The new organization would be called the Kent Fire Department.

Members of Firefighters Union Local 1747 posted signs in favor of Proposition No. 1 and went door-to-door in neighborhoods to rally support.

There was no organized opposition to the ballot measure.

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. A business that handles hazardous materials would pay a higher fee to help pay for the fire department’s hazardous materials team.

The formula for the fire benefit fee also allows for adjustments for sprinklers as well as senior citizen discounts.

If approved, the authority would be funded by a six-year fire benefit charge (not to exceed 60 percent of the operating budget) and a property tax (not to exceed $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed value). The funding would replace the Fire District’s existing property tax rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, and would reduce Kent’s property tax capacity by the tax rate of $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Currently, property owners 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 owner of a 2,272-square foot home in the city of Kent would pay about $149 more per year in property taxes under a regional fire authority because of the fire benefit charge, according to figures compiled by the Kent Fire Department. The owner of the same-sized home in Fire District 37 would pay about $28 more per year.

The regional fire authority would be overseen by a board of three Kent City Council members and three Fire District 37 commissioners. The city of Covington would have one advisory, non-voting position.

The intent was to keep the board equal at 3-3 between the city and fire district so any change would take at least a 4-2 vote and has to be a combination of the two (city and fire district) and would not give one jurisdiction more authority than the other, Schneider said. A citizens advisory committee would work with the board.

“People want more say in how their money is being spent,” Schneider said. “They will be represented by Council members and the Fire District board as well as a citizens advisory committee. There will be more involvement by citizens.”

King County will release election results each day as ballots are counted until final results are posted May 12.

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