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South King Fire levy will stabilize emergency services | Special election

In this 2009 file photo, Chris Boone trains at the Washington State Fire Training Academy before becoming a full-time career firefighter with South King Fire and Rescue. - Mirror file photo
In this 2009 file photo, Chris Boone trains at the Washington State Fire Training Academy before becoming a full-time career firefighter with South King Fire and Rescue.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

In an April 17 special election, South King Fire and Rescue will ask voters for a levy that strengthens both emergency and fire responses.

The lagging economy has led to drastic financial cuts for the fire district. If approved, the levy is expected to generate $3.5 million per year for four years. About $1 million will return one emergency aid car to service. SKFR's original aid car fleet was four units. The staffing equivalent of one-and-a-half aid cars was taken out of service in 2011 due to budget cuts.

All SKFR personnel are trained in both firefighting and emergency medical services (EMS). Most of the district's roughly 15,000 calls per year are EMS calls. In 2011, the district responded to 75 structure fires.

Restoring the aid car and staff will help stabilize response times between four to six minutes. Money from the levy will also protect the fire district's reserve fund, which is filling a budget gap. With the levy, the level of service will be at 2007-2008 levels, according to the district.

Should the levy fail in the April special election, the fire district faces cuts to personnel and service. Between 20 and 25 firefighters could be laid off by the end of 2013, the district reports.

In addition, the fire district's "Class 2" rating could be lowered as a result of fewer resources, meaning higher insurance costs. Fire Chief Al Church estimates those costs could climb between 5 percent and 25 percent.

Role of taxpayers

The fire district serves more than 150,000 residents in Federal Way, Des Moines and unincorporated King County.

To pass in the April election, the levy must receive 60 percent approval. In addition, voter turnout must be equal to 40 percent of the turnout in the last general election. About 32,600 voted on SKFR commissioner candidates in November 2011.

The proposed levy will cost each taxpayer an estimated 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The fire district receives nearly all of its operating budget from property taxes, currently collecting $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value. However, property values have plummeted over the past several years. The district's revenues have declined 23 percent since 2009.

The district's overall operating budget is built on a worst-case scenario for property tax values in the coming years, Church said.

"The department will shrink even more if we can't stem this tide," Church told The Mirror.

Background: SKFR's money issues

SKFR reports total operating expenses for 2011 at $22,522,445. However, revenues are about $20 million, and nearly $20 million goes toward employee salaries and benefits. In 2010, SKFR's operating budget was $23,248,772.

• SKFR's board of commissioners passed a resolution for the levy unanimously (5-0) on Jan. 26. The board unanimously authorized payment to King County for the fire district's share in the cost of the special election. The cost is divided among the county's election participants, and South King Fire's share will range from $100,000 to $150,000.

• On Jan. 26, the International Association of Firefighters Local 2024 and the fire district finalized a collective bargaining agreement. In the deal, employees will forgo wage increases through 2014. The union contract originally required pay raises of 4.1 percent. Chief Church expects this deal to save the fire district nearly $500,000 a year.

The board of commissioners unanimously passed the agreement. A similar concession by the union last January saved the fire district about $247,000 in 2011.

• South King Fire laid off four employees in the fall to save roughly $300,000 a year. In October, it was reported that the fire district depends on a limited reserve fund of $17.3 million to make ends meet. However, the district is required to keep nearly $11 million available in the fund to cover areas like first-quarter payroll and medical benefits.

• In 2010, the district tried to address the funding shortfall with a proposed service benefit charge (known as Prop. 1). The funding formula would have charged each property owner a fee based on fire risk and square footage, and would have allowed the district to maintain its level of service at the time. Voters rejected the measure (51.5 percent) in the August 2010 primary election. Since then, the fire district has cut one of four EMT vehicles, known as aid cars, while reducing another to part-time status. The district also reports a slight increase in emergency response times.

 

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