News

Voters will decide fire merger fate

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

A vote that could merge the three Plateau fire protection districts is set for the May 16 special election ballot.

The election will decide if Pierce County Fire District 12 - headquartered on 234th Avenue East between Buckley and Bonney Lake - and South Prairie Fire District 20 will join East Pierce Fire and Rescue, also known as District 22, creating a single fire protection district.

Residents of District 12 and District 20 will vote independently, determining if they want to merge into District 22. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition, as one could vote to merge and the other could decide to stay separate. Residents of District 22 will not be voting on the matter, as they're not the ones who would be making a shift.

The propositions need a simple majority to pass.

The three districts have been operating under the Tri-District heading the past three years as a trial run before seeking a formal merger.

“It has been a tremendous success,” East Pierce Fire Chief Dan Packer said. “The merger means shorter response times, better training and a more capable set of responders.”

According to Packer, the three boards of commissioners asked for the merger and the members voted unanimously for the proposition.

If the propositions pass, all 13 commissioners from the three districts will remain in place. As terms end, some members will not be replaced, allowing the board eventually to shrink to five members from across the three-district area. That process is expected to take about 10 years.

Aside from sharing costs and making better use of taxpayer resources, Packer points to the no-cost ambulance transportation as one of the features of the merger. Residents who need an ambulance will have no out-of-pocket expense for the service. A co-payment, which is usually at least $100, is waived. East Pierce officials decided the service is covered from taxes paid by residents in the district. The district collects payments from insurance companies or Medicare/Medicaid if the person is covered.

East Pierce officials noted the proposal will mean the continuation of emergency service and fire protection on a 24-hour basis throughout the three-district area.

The Tri-District serves a population of more than 57,000 people and in 2005 received more than 4,000 emergency calls.

It is expected that residents in districts 22 and 20 would see no change to their tax rate if the merger is approved. Those in District 12 would likely see an increase, because they're now paying a lower rate for services.

“It wouldn't be much,” Packer said. “Maybe a dollar or two a month at the most.”

Fire protection district mergers have become more common over the last 10 years due to the cost of providing services by smaller cities or districts. Pooling resources over a wider area has helped make the tax dollars stretch farther.

Officials from the three districts have sponsored about 30 public meetings according to Packer and, “the reaction from the citizens in the community has been very positive.”

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com.

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