Voters will decide on fire benefit charge in primary election

South King Fire chief says the measure will improve service and save money for most homeowners.

Homeowners could save a few bucks, but still see improvements from South King Fire, depending on whether Proposition 1 passes with 60% approval in the Aug. 6 primary election.

Voters in Federal Way, Des Moines, unincorporated King County, and 12 miles of Puget Sound coastline will decide the fate of the new fire benefit charge (FBC), also known as Proposition 1.

South King Fire Chief Dave Van Valkenburg stressed that this FBC is not a tax, but rather, it replaces the tax and levy homeowners currently pay to keep South King Fire afloat.

According to the department, when an FBC is in place, the regular tax levy is lowered from up to $1.50 per $1,000 to $1 per $1,000. So it lowers regular property tax. South King Fire also has a Maintenance and Operations Levy (M&O) that citizens have approved every four years dating back to 2012. If voters approve the FBC for South King, it will replace the need for another M&O. The current M&O expires at the end of 2024.

In addition to replacing the tax and levy, Van Valkenburg said some of the FBC’s advantages over the current fire tax include a lower charge for most people and more stability for South King Fire when planning future operations.

“As a fire district, a majority of our fire funding is based on the value of property within our jurisdiction. Every property pays their property tax, and we get a portion of that property tax,” Van Valkenburg said. “So, that mechanism is very old, and it hinders our ability to plan for the future, and anticipate growth, and anticipate challenges and be prepared before something happens, because our revenue is tied to the assessed value. So, if the property values go up, we collect a little more money. If property values go down, we collect less money.”

An example from South King Fire shows that if a home has an assessed value of $504,000, their current yearly property tax would be $874.82. But, with the FBC, their property tax would instead be $549.36, and the FBC would be $283.50, totaling $832.86 a year — a $41.96 decrease from what would currently be paid.

The fee is calculated for each home based on size, property use, and fire risk factors. For example, Van Valkenburg said a residential home would most likely pay less than a hazardous materials storage facility, an industrial facility producing, or in general, most facilities with a higher classification of risk. He said the department also measures how much resources each building would require in the case of an emergency when calculating the charge.

This is a more equitable way to spread out the department’s funding, the chief said, citing that residential homes will most likely pay less than they currently do. He said some commercial buildings will most likely pay more. Van Valkenburg said every home they ran through a calculation was paying less with the FBC than with the current tax.

“But you know how it goes. I don’t want to be absolute that everybody in the jurisdictions are going to pay less, but there could be somebody that pays more,” Van Valkenburg said. “You’d have to have a pretty big home for that to happen. You’d have to have a pretty high assessed valuation for that to happen.”

Long-term planning struggles

Van Valkenburg said with the current model of funding from property taxes, the amount South King Fire receives is always fluctuating. He said the FBC stabilizes the funding, enabling the department to plan for the long term and not have hiccups in that plan.

“We can build a plan around increasing services, and putting more resources on the street, having more firefighters on the street, and being able to add to our mobile integrated health program, and being able to have other programs in place to serve the community, so that we’re positioned to be successful in the future,” Van Valkenburg said. He said this creates a more stable fee for homeowners, and it stabilizes South King Fire so they can better serve their communities.

Valkenburg said South King Fire has had a 54% increase in calls over the last 10 years, going on about 25,000 calls a year, which is about 68 calls a day. Van Valkenburg said their jurisdiction has grown in population, so with that, they’ve gotten busier, but like most other jurisdictions, the opioid crisis and unhoused people needing assistance has also made South King Fire busier.

He said South King Fire is often the first step when someone is seeking medical care. Despite all this, Van Valkenburg said he doesn’t think the increase in calls is because of any one factor, but it’s a result of a combination of factors. He said staffing is a struggle, and with the increase in calls, their response time has been negatively impacted, and they’re often calling in other jurisdictions to help.

“The first one is staffing. We need to be able to put more firefighters in our fire stations to serve the community. We need to be able to purchase fire engines and aid cars to put in those fire stations. We need to renovate our fire stations,” he said.

If the FBC passes, Van Valkenburg said all who receive South King Fire’s services should expect to see improvements in service.

According to Capt. Brad Chaney, “the purpose of the FBC is to stabilize our funding and will not bring new fire stations or fire engines, but rather, it allows us to improve our financial planning for the future so that we may improve a variety of services over time.”

Editor’s note: This story has been revised since its original publication to clarify some aspects of the fire benefit charge.