Fire funding equation may change with vote

Fire District 3 wants more money.

If things go the way district officials hope they will, the district will get it, and will also receive an approval to do an end run around Tim Eyman.

Two issues on the Nov. 5 ballot -- one a measure that would boost FD3's property tax levy rate to 90 cents for every $1,000 of property value, and the other, a state House resolution that would allow fire districts to run excess levies -- could be big factors in bringing the district's income up to a level planned for six years ago.

Since the passage of Initiative 747 in 2000, a measure authored by Lynnwood anti-tax crusader Eyman, FD3 has seen its levy rate or millage decline year after year. While property tax income for the district is up overall -- from about $305,000 in 1989 to $1.58 million this year -- and is still growing, slowly, the district had planned for a rosier financial future.

Since 1989, when voters approved a $1 fire district levy rate, the millage has been rising and falling due to a tax cap, finally dropping to about 79 cents this year. District budgets were limited to no greater than a 6 percent annual increase until 2000, then were limited to 1 percent growth.

That doesn't have FD3 officials crying poormouth yet, but, said district Chief Don Smith, annual revenue increases falling behind the rate of inflation could endanger the equipment and facilities improvements the district has made since 1996. Without more money, the district will not be able to replace aging fire equipment in the future, hire paid administrative staff, or replace, remodel or construct fire stations.

"We can survive, but we'll have to figure out how we're going to fold the tent," he said.

Smith said the November election could open up a number of possibilities for the district. By taking the levy rate up to 90 cents, the cash infusion will put money into equipment and facilities reserve funds planned during the days of 6 percent budget increases. And, if voters approve the House measure, known as House Joint Resolution 4220, fire districts across the state will be able to count on unchanging millage rates for periods of four to six years.

For the measure to take effect in FD3, district voters would have to approve a fixed levy rate in a separate levy issue, much as they do for annual school district levies.

Smith said he does not know if the district will choose that option, but he said he believes it to be more cost effective than running levy measures every year or two to keep income levels up.

The die is not cast among the district's elected commissioners either. FD3 Commissioner Mike Helland acknowledged the need for more paid staff to run the district's volunteer firefighter, rescue and emergency medical programs. He also noted that the district has some of the best equipment and fire stations around.

"We're the envy of a lot of places," he said.

Which money options the district chooses in the future, he said, will depend on how the numbers work out over time.

"Things have gone along OK," he said. "We're not behind the 8-ball yet."

At present, FD3 has the lowest levy rate of any fire district in King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, San Juan, Island, Jefferson, Clallum and Kitsap counties.

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