Will Kent, Covington get regional fire authority? It’s on the ballot

Voters in Kent, Covington and King County Fire District 37 will decide this month whether they want to form a regional fire authority that would merge the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37.

Voters in Kent, Covington and King County Fire District 37 will decide this month whether they want to form a regional fire authority that would merge the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37.

The King County Elections division mailed ballots April 7 for Proposition No. 1. Ballots must be postmarked by the election date of April 27 to be counted in the ballot by mail election.

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.

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.

Jim Schneider, fire chief of the Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37, and his staff said they want 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.

“We’ve had an increase in population, an increase in service calls and a response time that has added 45 seconds because of more traffic,” Schneider said during an interview Monday. “We’ve also had a decrease in budgets that has taken away money to deliver service and we have not had a new station built in the city in 21 years. That has put us in a very difficult position.”

Fire department officials found out Tuesday that even more cuts need to be made this year. Kent city staff proposed an $877,000 reduction in the fire department budget for 2010.

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

There is no organized opposition to the ballot measure.

Leroy Stevenson, a resident of Covington since 1989, wrote a statement against the proposition in the Voters’ Pamphlet and told the Kent Reporter in a Monday phone interview that a regional fire authority gives the fire department more money to spend and fails to address any cost savings measures to make fire services more efficient.

“It would not be on the ballot if it didn’t generate more revenue,” said Stevenson, who added the propositions lack specifics about how much revenue actually would be raised. “It looks like an unending revenue increase stream for the fire department. And initially the burden would fall on businesses. But businesses don’t really pay taxes. They pass the cost on to customers.”

Stevenson, who is semi-retired and sometimes attends Covington City Council meetings, said he first about the proposed new fire organization at a Council meeting.

Schneider said when fire officials and community stakeholders first looked at forming a regional fire authority about six years ago they hoped a new funding mechanism would help with discretionary revenue and allow the department to fund a new station in downtown Kent.

“Now it’s about sustaining services and not new stations,” Schneider said.

Schneider said the regional fire authority would allow firefighters to keep response times at their current level to medical and fire calls.

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.

City residents would see a larger increase than Fire District 37 residents because the city would still pay for fire investigations and fire prevention education.

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

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.

Stevenson said he doesn’t trust a board to keep costs under control. He also questions why another independent taxing authority needs to be created rather than keeping a fire department under the umbrella of city government.

“We’re turning everything into an independent taxing authority,” Stevenson said about a property tax statement that lists libraries, hospitals, transit and numerous other services. “If we keep doing that, then what good is city government?”

The regional fire authority proposal was approved unanimously by the Kent City Council, Covington City Council and the Fire District board.

The Municipal League of King County recommended April 9 that residents vote for Propostion No. 1. The league is a nonpartisan group of volunteers and issues recommendations about election issues and candidates.

“Fiscal challenges facing Kent, Covington and Fire District 37 have already resulted in staff reductions and increased response times for emergency services,” according to a Municipal League media release. “The League supports the use of the proposed fire benefit charge in combination with the property tax because the blended revenue stream is fair and balances general purpose taxes with a user fee charged to facilities based on risk and need.”

The new organization would be called the Kent Fire Department.

For more information, including estimated property tax charts, go to www.ci.kent.wa.us/fire/.

Regional fire authority ballot measure

What: Proposition No. 1, forms a regional fire authority by merging Kent Fire Department and Fire District 37

When: Ballots mailed out April 7

Deadline: Ballots must be postmarked by election date of April 27

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