News

Levy key to fire protection budget

By PAT JENKINS

Editor

Voters within the Federal Way Fire Department service area are deciding whether the agency can continue a local tax and keep its current level of fire protection services.

Ballots on Proposition 1 (including absentees mailed early) will be counted after the primary election Sept. 17. If a majority approve the levy, the existing rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation on homes and other private property would be retained as the source of the largest portion of the Fire Department’s annual budget. Current service also would continue, officials said.

Defeat of the levy could lead to layoffs among the department’s 123 employees (99 of them firefighters) and reduced training. That’s risky in the face of increased emergency calls, according to department officials.

The levy passed last year with a 64 percent yes vote. A simple majority of votes (50 percent plus one) decides the issue.

The department asked for but got no volunteers in the community to write an anti-levy statement for voter pamphlets. Fire chief Al Church’s request in a letter to the editor published by the Mirror received no takers, and a committee that wrote an opposition statement for last year’s levy election didn’t get involved this time, said department spokeswoman Monica Colby.

Following are levy-related questions and answers compiled by the department:

Question: Why is Proposition 1 on the ballot?

Answer: Last year, Washington voters passed I-747. which limits the taxes the Fire Department can collect in 2003 to no more than 1 percent above the amount collected in 2002 without a public vote. The department’s Fire Commissioners determined that the 1 percent limit will not cover inflationary costs for next year.

The department continuously evaluates the community's emergency service needs, and, as in 2001, a lid lift is the most common voter-approved method for funding in excess of 1 percent. The department is also undergoing a five-year strategic planning process that will assist the commissioners in making informed service and funding recommendations in the future.

Q: Is Proposition 1 a new tax?

A: No. It would allow the department to reauthorize its current tax levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Q: Is there a limit now on how much the Fire Department budget can increase?

A: Yes. Under current law, tax collections can go up each year by a maximum of 1 percent plus new construction (due to the passage of Initiative 747). The law before 2002 allowed the department to collect up to 6 percent if property values went up that much. That allowed the department to cover costs from inflation and the growth in calls for services.

Q: Why does the Fire Department need to exceed the 1 percent limitation?

A: The department faces increased costs each year for utilities, employee healthcare benefits, wages, fuel and supplies. During the first five months of 2002, inflation increased 3 percent. For next year, officials have been told that healthcare costs for department employees will go up nearly 30 percent. As the community has grown, requests for fire services have increased. In 2002, total call volume will exceed 10,000. If the budget increase is limited to 1 percent, Fire Commissioners concluded, the level of service would have to be reduced.

Q: What has the Fire Department done to become more financially efficient?

A: This year, the department regionalized its dispatching services to reduce the cost per call, and has been a leader in combining two fire zones into one, officials said. The department has a capital reserve system that funds major equipment purchases, including fire trucks (replaced every 18 years), without having to issue bonds. The department also participates with other fire departments to purchase medical items in bulk at a reduced cost.

Q: How much will it cost if Proposition 1 passes?

A: For the owner of a home valued at $200,000, it would cost about an additional $20 per year (based on historical assessed valuation trends).

Q: What would happen if Proposition 1 doesn't pass?

A: The Fire Department would face a revenue loss of up to $500,000 annually that would eventually erode the department's reserves and its ability to provide essential services. At a time when requests for service are increasing and homeland security is threatened, a loss of up to $500,000 would be a budget impact to address in the department’s 2003 budget process.

Q: Can the Fire Department get money from the state or from increased consumer spending to cover inflation costs?

A: No, the department doesn’t receive any money from the state. Funding comes almost entirely from local property taxes. Increases in consumer spending do not affect funding for fire and emergency medical services, since consumer spending does not affect property taxes.

If you have other questions, or would like someone from the Fire Department to talk to your group, please call Fire Chief Al Church at 253-839-6234 or 253-927-3118

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