Editor’s note: An unknown technical issue in the Aug. 28 edition of The Courier-Herald resulted in this story not being fully published. Additionally, some financial information concerning how much Black Diamond residents were taxed by a public safety levy was incorrect, and has been updated below.
An audibly frustrated Mountain View Fire and Rescue board of commissioners met with the Black Diamond City Council earlier this month to discuss the future of the city’s fire and emergency medical services.
Lines in the sand were clearly drawn during the Aug. 8 council work study. One side believes the fire department has been underpaid an “embarrassing” amount over the last several years.
“The citizens here pay less than half the rate of their fire and EMS services than the citizens of Mountain View and other neighboring communities pay, while receiving essentially the same level of service,” fire department Commissioner Jim Farrell read from a prepared statement. “Beginning in 2020, should a fair and equitable plan not be agreed to fund fire and emergency services in the city, the elected officials of the district will be forced to take action related to the continuance of the current interlocal agreement.”
However, the other side says it’s not about not wanting to pay more for much-needed emergency services, but about simply being financially unable to afford an increase in the cost of service.
If the city adopted Mountain View Fire’s latest proposed interlocal agreement, said Mayor Carol Benson, “next year, we will have a shortfall of $221,000, which is two employees… By 2025, we’d have a shortfall of almost $2 million. Financially, we can’t afford this contract. It’s never been that we don’t want to pay you, but we can’t afford to pay what you’re asking for right now.”
Before getting into the numbers, here’s a quick look at the situation Black Diamond and Mountain View Fire and Rescue find themselves in.
First, the city of Black Diamond is not annexed into Mountain View Fire and Rescue; instead, the city contracts with the department for its services.
The only difference this makes is the city pays for those services through its own property tax levies, rather than the fire department collecting its own revenue.
The fire department is paid a flat amount adjusted by inflation; in 2019, the department will be paid about $559,000, roughly a third of the the $1.65 million the city expects to collect through its general property tax levy.
On its own, Black Diamond can levy a maximum property tax of $3.10 per $1,000 in assessed property value (APV) onto its residents; were the city annexed into the fire district, that levy maximum would decrease to $1.60, allowing Mountain View Fire to apply its own fire levy ($1 per $1,000 APV) and EMS levy (50 cents per $1,000 APV) to Black Diamond residents.
However, it’s been a long time since Black Diamond residents have paid the maximum levy amount, which is currently being used to fund all of the city’s public safety departments and programs, including fire, EMS, and police.
Under state law, municipalities and departments that collect property taxes can only collect 1 percent more revenue from the previous year. This means as property rates rise, the levy must depreciate to compensate.
According to Farrell, Black Diamond residents were taxed $2.61 per $1,000 APV in 2014, which has decreased to $1.89 per $1,000 APV in 2019.
The department believes this translates to about 64 cents per $1,000 APV, since 64 cents is about a third of the $1.89 levy amount the city collects in 2019.
The only way to bring up Black Diamond’s levy rate is through what’s called a levy lid lift, a measure on an election ballot that would raise the levy amount anywhere up to its $3.10 maximum, provided the proposition receives supermajority (60 percent) approval.
WHAT THE DEPARTMENT IS ASKING FOR
According to the draft interlocal agreement, Mountain View Fire and Rescue is asking Black Diamond for two things — to pay the department a certain amount of money based on APV, and run a levy lid lift so the department can be paid more money.
This year, residents will be levied $1.89 cents per $1,000 APV. The revenue is split mostly between the Black Diamond Police Department and the fire department; in 2019, the department received the equivalent of 64 cents per $1,000 APV.
According to a draft interlocal agreement, Mountain View Fire wants the city to pay the department $1 per $1,000 APV in 2020, $1.10 per $1,000 APV in 2021, $1.20 in 2022, and $1.50 in 2023.
For those not wanting to pull out your calculators, here’s an estimate in what those levy rates means in real dollars.
According to the Seattle Times, the median property value in the city is approximately $386,000, meaning homes of this value will pay approximately $730 in property taxes this year, based on that $1.89 levy amount.
But if the city council were to approve a levy lid lift that would raise the amount just enough so Mountain View Fire could collect the amount of taxes stipulated in the draft interlocal agreement with the city (meaning other departments, like the police, would receive no additional funds), residents could expect the city’s levy to rise to around $2.25 in 2020, $2.35 in 2021, $2.45 in 2022, and $2.65 in 2023.
In real dollars (again using the median home value figure of $386,000) this means the median home would be taxed about $870 in 2020, $910 in 2021, $945 in 2022, and $1,020 in 2023, assuming home values stay constant.
This would put Black Diamond on par with the rest of Mountain View Fire’s district; according to both Farrell and Mountain View Fire and Rescue Chief Greg Smith, the rest of the district pays the full $1.50 per $1,000 APV for a service level proportionally similar to what Black Diamond receives.
IS THIS TAX INCREASE AFFORDABLE?
The short answer, according to Benson, is no.
If Mountain View Fire’s proposed lid lift were approved by residents, it “would almost double the taxes in the city of Black Diamond,” she said. “Half of our city is extremely low-income-challenged people. So I don’t know how we can come to an agreement on the contract that you wrote.”
Exactly how many Black Diamond residents are low-income is unclear, but according to Data USA, just about 9 percent of the city lives under the poverty line.
However, a majority of the city council voiced their support for a levy lid lift, both believing that most Black Diamond residents will want to pay their “fair and equitable” share for the department’s services and finding it ridiculous this issue hasn’t been solved yet.
“This is embarrassing,” Councilman Chris Wisnoski said, at one point pounding the table. “We’ve been underpaying our service, making the rest of the district carry our load for how many years? That’s unacceptable. This should have been figured out years ago.”
“I’m not so sure that half our population is in poverty level, but I think that our population is very mindful of what their needs are, [what’s] important to them, and it’s always been safety,” Councilwoman Tamie Deady stated.
“My initial feeling and thoughts about this is in the same boat at Wisnoski here, and Tamie,” Councilwoman Melissa Oglesbee added. “I personally feel the citizens deserve the quality of service you guys are providing, and we should be paying for the quality of service that you guys are providing.”
Councilwoman Janie Edelman appeared to be the only council member to side with Benson, recognizing that the city is underpaying the fire department but also believing the city and its residents can’t afford a levy lid lift.
“Where do you want the money to come from?” she asked the rest of council. “Do you want to fire two police officers? Do you want to fire some staff?”
Since the police and fire budgets come from the same pot, it is possible that the city will limit how high a proposed levy lid will be in order to mitigate the tax burden on its residents, but at the expense of some cuts to staff or services.
But some council members appeared loathe to open that can of worms, and seemed to prefer risking taxing its residents more to keep their current service levels of both fire and police.
“We cannot always drag the police department in and say to your citizens, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, because your police are going to have to go. A conversation with the fire department should keep the police out of it,” Deady said. “For the eight years that I’ve been paying attention, we don’t treat our fire department the same as we treat our police. And I want to see them both equal.”
By the end of the night, Farrell made it clear he and other commissioners weren’t looking for the Black Diamond City Council to vote on a levy lid lift straight away, nor that the fire department was expecting to receive the revenue it needs right off the bat.
“I would like you to consider [a] gradual increase and promise to us that you are going to be paying your fair and equitable share for fire protection,” he said. “If we got a commitment from your council that you were going to seriously consider, and told staff to set up, a levy lid lift here for reimbursing the fire department, we would look on that as a very positive step.”
In response, the council officially directed city staff during the Aug. 15 council meeting to begin examining the financials behind getting a levy lid lift on a future ballot, how high a lid lift would need to be, and how a lid lift would impact residents’ wallets.
The city and fire department commissioners also agreed to meet back up in October to continue discussions.