News

District looking for Tri-District equity

By Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

Voters in Fire District 12 are again being asked to bump up their property taxes - actually, to return the rate to a previously-approved level - a step firefighters say is necessary to ensure current levels of fire protection and emergency medical services.

District 12 has meandering boundary lines but sits generally between Buckley and Bonney Lake. The district creeps into the foothills to the south but does not include South Prairie, home to District 20.

Voters in District 12 will go to the polls Sept. 14, asked to increase their tax rate by 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The impact, if approved, would be $108 per year to the owner of property (home and land) assessed at $200,000.

Supporters of the "lid lift" measure note that the upcoming ballot measure simply allows the district to collect taxes at previously-accepted levels. Anti-tax initiatives have curtailed the district's ability to collect revenues, they say, noting the authorized collection rate of $1.50 has now slipped to about 96 cents.

The Sept. 14 proposal is similar to one voters faced in May. In the spring, the "lid lift" proposal was placed simultaneously before voters in districts 12 and 20, plus the Bonney Lake-based East Pierce Fire and Rescue (District 22). Those three make up the Tri-District, and have banded together to create efficiencies wherever possible; each district maintains a board of directors, but those groups now meet jointly.

On May 18, voters in East Pierce Fire and Rescue and District 20 authorized the "lid lift." Voters in District 12, however, offered only 45 percent support and the measure failed.

Among those lobbying for the upcoming tax measure are District 12 Chief Jake Doty and John McDonald, assistant chief for District 22. They explain revenues are now limited to 1 percent annually, while actual costs of operating a fire district jump by 7 or 8 percent each year. That reflects everything from the cost of supplies to salaries and benefits for employees.

If the tax measure is rejected, Doty said, it could lead to a drop in the level of service now enjoyed by district residents. Full-time, paid, professional firefighters may not be as readily available, he said, explaining the district would have to rely more on its crew of volunteers. McDonald emphasized maintenance issues would take the first hit, and surplus funds could be dipped into, before staffing was reduced.

The bottom line, both agree, is fire districts get busier each year as populations expand, and they need the financial resources to catch up. Information provided by the district shows 9-1-1 calls have increased 54 percent in the last five years. Doty said the number of calls to District 12 are showing a 10 percent increase so far this year. In 2003, crews responded to 867 calls, and 75 percent of those were medical responses.

McDonald said the failure of District 12 voters to approve the May tax measure didn't jeopardize the continuing evolution of Tri-District operations, and the outcome of coming election won't doom the effort. "There's too much to be gained for citizens," he said. "But it certainly would create a disparity" where residents of all three districts enjoyed a similar level of service but taxpayers in just two of those districts were paying the additional costs.

Both Doty and McDonald agreed the ballot wording in May didn't help their cause. Some voters found it confusing, believing the districts were asking for an additional $1.50 to their tax rate, rather than a return to the $1.50 level. Pierce County staff edited what was provided, they complain. This time, they hope, the ballot language is a bit clearer.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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