Opinion

Factors behind Proposition One | Fire Chief Al Church

South King Fire and Rescue provides a full array of emergency services to 150,000 citizens within the cities of Federal Way and Des Moines, as well as portions of unincorporated King County. Thanks to past community support, we are able to deliver the emergency services our citizens have said they want. However, maintaining these emergency service levels during the recent economic crisis nationwide has become extremely difficult.

Our fire department is one of the busiest in King County with nearly 16,000 calls for service each year. The support of our citizens over the years means that we can respond to emergencies with trained personnel and life-saving equipment in four to six minutes on average, which is critical to survival rates. In addition, we are one of only three fire districts in the state to have achieved a Class 2 insurance rating. This means our citizens and business owners receive the lowest insurance rates anywhere in the State of Washington.

Like many citizens, our fire department is struggling in this difficult economy. We are funded almost exclusively by property taxes. Declining property values reduced the amount of revenue our fire department received in 2010 by $3.7 million, or 14.6 percent. Projections for 2011 show another revenue decline between 5 percent and 7 percent. This means that over a two-year period, your fire department will have seen revenue decline by 20 percent or in excess of $5 million. For a public service whose primary focus is responding to emergencies, these funding reductions are extremely difficult to manage.

In dealing with our funding challenges, we have cut our budget to the bone, including implementing a hiring freeze and reducing personnel through attrition. We are using reserve funds to fill in the gap for 2010, but these funds are temporary. We cannot continue like this in 2011 and beyond without laying off emergency personnel, which would reduce service levels, increase response times and jeopardize our Class 2 insurance rating.

Based on these issues, the Board of Fire Commissioners decided to place Proposition 1 on the Aug. 17 primary election ballot. Proposition 1 will maintain emergency service levels for the citizens of South King Fire and Rescue. It reduces property taxes by 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. It relies on a benefit charge, which is decided through a public rate setting process, based on square footage and fire risk.

More and more fire agencies across the state are using this funding model because they believe it is stable, predictable and fair for consumers. This type of funding mechanism has been used successfully by others for 20 years. Our neighbors in Auburn (Valley Regional Fire Authority) and Kent (fire authority) use this model. The citizens of Kent’s fire department recently adopted this funding model with a 73 percent ballot measure approval.

Without Proposition 1, the Board of Fire Commissioners will have to make some tough decisions that could adversely impact emergency staffing and response times in 2011. Ultimately, you, as the taxpayer and voter, will have the opportunity to decide if you want to maintain emergency service levels through this funding source.

If you have any questions about Proposition 1, visit our website at www.southkingfire.org, or contact me personally at chiefchurch@southkingfire.org. Thank you for your time and consideration of this issue.

Al Church is fire chief/administrator for South King Fire and Rescue.

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