Fire department hurting for money amid declining property values

If you live in the service borders of South King Fire and Rescue, you may have recently received a survey call about a Benefit Service Charge.

SKFR is looking at options to help stabilize revenue sources. Currently, almost all of the department's revenue comes from taxes based on assessed values of property. In the down economy, assessed property values have plummeted 14 percent to 25 percent throughout the Federal Way and Des Moines area. This has caused the department to lose $3.7 million in funding in the last year.

For example, on a $300,000 home, the department received about $450 last year. This year, that same home brought in between $350 and $400. If the trend continues, then next year the same house would only bring in around $300.

"We're doing the same things, but the citizens are paying less," Chief Al Church said.

This year, the department dipped into its reserve fund to cover the $3.7 million loss.

"I can't keep doing that," Church said. "I'll start depleting everything in my reserves."

Under the proposed Service Benefit Charge, property taxes collected would go from $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value to $1. Then, using a formula created by the National Fire Protection Association, the Service Benefit Charge would make up the difference.

Reductions are given for items that could lessen the likelihood or severity of a fire, including fire alarms and sprinklers.

The formula takes into consideration what it costs to fight a fire at any given location, including costs for manpower and resources.

The charge would be based on square footage of a home. Owners of larger buildings, be it residential, commercial or multiple family housing, would be charged a higher amount.

The charge would bring back the funding to the 2009 levels; then the department could re-adjust the rate as needed.

The goal is to get the funding stabilized from year to year, Church said.

The Benefit Service Charge is already in use at Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, Eastside Fire and Rescue, Woodenville Fire Department, King County Fire District 16 and Valley Regional Fire Authority.

Church said the department could not survive another year like the last without cutting personnel.

If the Service Benefit Charge is implemented, citizens would have an opportunity to come in see for themselves exactly how much they would be charged online, and can come in to the department to ask any questions.

Currently the plan is in the very early informational stages, hence the phone calls to determine the interest or knowledge of the public on the Service Benefit Charge.

The Board of Commissioners will be looking at whether to put the issue on the ballot, either in the April, August or November elections next year.

"Financially we're getting clobbered," Church said. "We're not trying to find new money."

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