East Pierce seeks levy lid in August election

East Pierce firefighters drop whatever they were doing at last year’s spring open house for a fire call. File image by Ray Still.

East Pierce Fire and Rescue residents should be on the lookout for two levy measures on the Aug. 1 primary election ballot.

The levy measures were approved by the department’s fire commissioners during the regular monthly meeting on April 18.

Proposition No. 1 would reset the department’s fire levy back to its maximum of $1.50 for every $1,000 in assessed property value for four years if approved by voters.

Proposition No. 2 would keep the department’s EMS levy at its maximum of $0.50 for every $1,000 in assessed value for four years if approved by voters.

If both propositions are approved, the total property tax would be $2 for every $1,000 in assessed value.

This means homeowners with $250,000 in assessed property value would pay $500 in taxes every year, with a maximum total of $2,000 over the next four years.

Both propositions come with a collection cap, limiting levy collection growth to no more than 6 percent over the previous year.

East Pierce Fire Chief Bud Backer said the department estimates collecting $25.25 million in levy revenue per year, assuming there’s a 6 percent increase in assessed property values.

Over four years, Backer estimated the department will collect about $114.5 million.

If both measures fail, it’s estimated that 2018 levy revenue will drop to $23.3 million, and over the next four years, the department will only collect $98.6 million.

Backer said there is a backup plan being worked out if both levy propositions aren’t approved by voters, but the situation is tricky.

“Problem is the filing deadline for the November election is the same day as the August election, so if things look (feel) grim, we’ll have to file prior to knowing the results of the August ballot,” Backer said in an April 26 interview. “If we did that and didn’t need to run measures in November, we could pull them as soon as we knew the August election results.

DEPRECIATED LEVIES

East Pierce’s fire and EMS levies depreciate due to a state law that limits agencies and municipalities to collecting 1 percent more in property taxes from the previous year.

This means as cities grow or property values increase, property tax levies must depreciate in order to balance the equation.

During the April 2016 special election, the department’s fire levy was at its maximum, but the EMS levy had depreciated to 44.3 cents.

Voters raised the EMS levy to its full 50 cents that year, but the department did not run a fire levy lid lift proposition because they were convinced the fire levy wouldn’t depreciate for a couple more years, Backer said.

“Sometimes, the crystal ball doesn’t work so well,” he said. “While that saved the owner of a $300,000 home about $34.50 ($2.87 a month) in 2017, that cut our potential revenues by 1.3 million.”

ONE PERCENT IS ‘NOT ENOUGH’

According to Backer, limiting levy collection growth to 1 percent is not enough to maintain services, let alone improve them.

And even if the both proposition pass, the department will still not be able to address all its funding needs.

The department’s first need is increasing staffing levels.

“With the rapid increase in call volume, the staffing shortfalls at East Pierce are being exacerbated,” he said. “We have a need to increase staffing on fire engines to meet standards and improve efficiencies, as well as add a fifth medic unit to our system due to a 31 percent increase in EMS incidents since 2012.”

Back in February, East Pierce commissioners decided to apply for a three-year grant that would partially fund hiring nine new firefighters.

The department will learn if it was awarded the grant by the end of September.

Backer said the grant will cover most of the cost of the nine new firefighters in the first year, but by year three, only cover a quarter of their cost.

By year four, when the grant money is depleted, Backer estimates those nine firefighters will cost $1.3 million.

Backer said at the time he estimates that the East Pierce can afford these nine firefighters if the department can collect its full $2 in levies.

“I’m not going to do what some departments have done in the past, and hire folks that I can’t afford to keep after the grant funding has expired,” he said during an earlier interview about the grant. “If we’re not collecting at that rate, or near it, we should still be able to keep the people, but may slide back in the number of firefighters on duty as we wouldn’t fill vacancies created by retirements, which we anticipate several in the next five to seven years. That would allow us to avoid layoffs, but at the cost of lower service levels and decreased safety.”

Aside from hiring more staff, the department is also looking at creating two or three new stations in the next 10 or so years, as well as purchasing new fire engines.

Backer said these capital projects could be funded by selling bonds, since even with the lid lifts, “there wouldn’t be enough money to do the capital projects.”

There’s also the option of running an additional Fire Benefit Charge or Maintenance and Operations levy on top of the fire and EMS levies, but neither of these options are going to ballot in August.