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Pros and cons: South King Fire and Rescue asks voters for financial help

The fight over Proposition 1 is heating up.

In the Aug. 17 primary election, voters will decide the fate of South King Fire and Rescue's Prop. 1 measure, a service benefit charge. Two sides of the issue are campaigning whole-heartedly.

For Prop. 1

South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR) is proposing the service benefit charge as the best way to save the fire department's financial situation.

SKFR is looking at options to help stabilize revenue sources. Currently, almost all of the department's revenue comes from taxes based on assessed property values. In the down economy, assessed property values have plummeted 14 percent to 25 percent throughout the Federal Way and Des Moines area, according to SKFR.

This has meant more than $3.7 million lost in funding, Deputy Chief Gordon Olson said.

The proposed benefit charge would be a two-part funding formula. First, SKFR would collect a maximum of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value. In addition, there would be a charge for every building in the department's area, based on its square footage. That fee is based on three main factors:

• The use of the building, be it a home, apartment or commercial;

• The size of the building — the bigger the building, the higher the charge;

• And the risk level for the building, where safety precautions like fire sprinkler systems would result in a discounted charge.

The department doesn't have an exact number of how much the change will cost homeowners. According to the department, many residents will pay the same they did in 2010, but likely less than they paid in 2009.

Businesses, in most cases, will have higher benefit charges than homeowners because the formula is based on square footage.

However, Olson said the fire department will keep business in mind with the charge. He said the department's formula will ensure that Federal Way businesses will have a lower payment than businesses under the jurisdiction of Valley Regional Fire Authority.

"From a competitive standpoint, business is a bit more competitive here," Olson said. "We'll keep the community competitive."

Other fire departments have taken this route. The Kent fire district passed a similar measure on the April ballot. Valley Regional Fire Authority, Woodinville and Central Pierce fire departments have it as well. The state Legislature granted fire departments the ability to use a service benefit charge in 1987, and several departments have had one for 20 years or more. The Northshore Fire Department implemented the charge in 1989, and has used it ever since.

Against Prop. 1

On the other side is the "vote no" campaign led by Jerry Galland, who is also a candidate for District 30 state representative position 2. Galland said that approval of the measure would mean a 66 percent tax increase.

He said SKFR should have put cap on its collection.

"They didn't do that, they left an open checkbook," Galland said.

Galland said he reached that number by going from the current assessed value of $1.50 per $1,000. With the maximum allowed by law of 60 percent of the department's budget coming for the benefit charge, that would bring the amount to $2.50, which Galland said brings the tax increase to 66 percent.

However, the fire department disputes that claim. Although in the strictest sense of the word the department could use that full 60 percent of the budget, Olson said that is so unlikely, it's ridiculous.

"Just because we have that capacity does not mean that we're going to get anywhere close that that. It's just the same as the city and the state going nowhere near their capacity," Olson said. "By law it could go up, but it's just not economically or politically going to happen."

Assistant Chief Ed Plumlee said that one measure that would keep that amount from ever being reached is the yearly public meeting on the service benefit charge.

However, Galland said that fire commissioner meetings are not very well attended, so the public process is not there, and that any yearly benefit service charge meetings would be the same.

Rather than a promise from the fire department, the measure should have the conditions of a cap on taxes put in writing, Galland said.

Matthew Jarvis of Jarvis Financial in Federal Way said he is voting no on the proposal. He suggested charging people who use the fire department's services, rather than charging the general population for a service that most never use. In a letter to The Mirror, Jarvis also said that forcing the department to cut its budget "will also force them to find innovative solutions (like not duplicating the Coast Guard’s protection of the Puget Sound or making Kent provide their own fire service)."

What's at stake

Almost all of SKFR's funding — about 95 percent — comes from property taxes. With a projected decrease of an additional 3 percent in 2011, department officials said there is no way to maintain the current service levels. This year, the department is using cash reserves to keep service levels the same. Without some sort of stabilization, department officials said they will have to lay off emergency personnel, which will result in increased response times. Currently, the department has a response time of four to six minutes. This gives the department a Class 2 insurance rating. SKFR is one of three fire agencies in the state with this rating, which is also the highest in the state, as there aren't any ranked at Class 1.

"It's critical in our world to get to you as fast as possible so we can help," Chief Al Church said.

A lower rating would have a financial impact, especially on businesses, where a drop in ratings could result in a higher insurance payment. Insurance companies use the class rating when determining coverage costs.

If the measure doesn't pass in August, the Board of Commissioners has already approved a measure for the ballot in November.

Learn more

To run a sample of what your Fire Benefit Service Charge would be following VRFA's model, visit http://www.vrfa.org/Docs.asp?PageType=ServiceCharge

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