Fire departments seek $3 million levy to make up for property tax revenue drops

For the first time, East Pierce Fire and Rescue will ask voters’ approval on a maintenance and operations levy to help battle the continuing drop in assessed home values.

“This is a new thing for us,” Chief Jerry Thorson said.

The measure will be on the Aug. 7 ballot.

If approved, the $3 million levy will counteract the drop in home values, Thorson said. Ninety percent of East Pierce’s funding is tied to property taxes on assessed home valuations.

“Every time they take a hit it affects our budget directly,” he said.

Thorson said the fire agency has been forced to cut $2.9 million for its budget over the past several years due to declining values, a trend the department expects will continue for at least two more years, An approximate 7 percent reduction is expected in 2013.

“We’ve cut the budget every year,” he said. “The $3 million kind of gets us back to where we were.”

Thorson said East Pierce has taken pay cuts, furlough days, delayed maintenance and left positions open to save money. Training has been cut by approximately 30 percent and the department has reduced overtime by 48 percent. But any further cuts could mean residents see the effects.

“If we don’t have this approved, we’ll have to do some cuts into areas of service the citizens see,” Thorson said. “And we’re trying to avoid that.”

In 2011, East Pierce firefighters responded to 8,362 total emergency calls. Of those, 6,163 were emergency medical services-related incidents, an increase of 9 percent over 2010.

“This election is about giving the voters of our fire district an opportunity to maintain their current level of Fire and Emergency Medical Services,” said East Pierce Fire Commissioner Chair Rick Kuss in a press release.

East Pierce is asking voters to approve a two-year levy of $3 million in 2013 and $3.2 million in 2014. Thorson said the estimated tax impact is 38 cents per $1,000 assessed home value.

For the average home in the district, valued at approximately $250,000, that would come to a rate of $7.92 per month, or $95 per year.

Fire departments can receive funding in three different ways: a regular fire/EMS levy approved by voters, a capital improvement bond and the maintenance and operations levy.

The fire district is currently funded at a rate of $1.50 per thousand of assessed value for fire services and 50 cents per thousand of assessed value for EMS services.

This is the first time East Pierce has asked voters to approve a maintenance and operations levy.

“We looked at all the other alternatives,” Thorson said. “We wouldn’t come asking for this at this particular time unless we really needed it.”