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Property values pinch fire department's tight budget

It will be tight, but South King Fire and Rescue has eeked out a new budget for next year.

SKFR fire commissioners approved the $23 million budget on Tuesday.

The department has seen a nearly $3.7 million reduction in its budget after the economy brought down assessed values of homes and properties. The vast majority of the department's revenue, about 95 percent, comes from property taxes.

The King County Assessor's office has determined that the value of the properties in the boundaries of the department is $13 billion, and that the department can collect $20.7 million.

The fire department cannot collect more than $1.50 per $1,000 of the assessed value of a home.

In the past, this has meant that on a $300,000 home, the department would collect about $450 in taxes. However, assessed values plummeted this year, on average almost 15 percent, and the department is now collecting $300-$350 on that same home.

This meant substantially less money to work with for the budget. Because more than 85 percent of the budget is staff, and the department wanted to avoid layoffs, it meant cutting and dipping into reserves.

"We've weathered the storm for 2010," Chief Al Church said. "We don't want it to be quite so stormy next year."

The biggest hit was to the capital budget, as many projects and purchases were postponed. The only apparatus purchases for the next year will be paid for by a commissioner bond, meaning the department can pay over a few years, but with a lower interest rate than buying on credit.

"I had two that, flat out, I've got to replace to maintain the service," Church said of the equipment purchase. "To maintain the service."

The department had to increase some costs for staff related costs, including medical costs, but for the most part the budget was all about cutting.

"We're fighting," Church said. "I don't want to be the first chief in this department to lay someone off."

Some budget highlights

• The department plans for the retirement of an assistant chief and a deputy chief, positions that will not be filled in 2010.

• The department will not be contributing to the Capital Reserves in 2010

• Cuts included a 20 percent reduction in food costs, a 31 percent reduction in office supplies, a nearly 70 percent reduction in small equipment (including office machines and furniture), a 15 percent reduction in administrative costs.

• Expenses for any outside training were completely eliminated.

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