Black Diamond fire study begins

FCS Group was one of three firms that answered the city’s request for proposals.

The Black Diamond City Council recently picked a firm to conduct a study on the city’s financially-feasible options for fire emergency services.

This is the latest step in a multi-year-long process that came to a head last September, when a frustrated Mountain View Fire and Rescue — the fire department that serves Black Diamond, as well as swaths of unincorporated King County — announced to the council they could not afford to continue serving local residents if the city did not pay them more money.

Two months later, seeing little to no movement on the issue, Mountain View gave official notice of their intent to terminate their contract with Black Diamond. However, the contract would not end until Jan. 1, 2023, so there’s still plenty of time for the two parties to come to another financial agreement.

It was during the July 16 council meeting that the city, after having sent out a Request for Proposals and receiving three responses, selected FCS Group to head the study.

“Under this contract, FCS expects to complete the fiscal study and report to Council by December 31, 2020,” the agenda bill reads. “However, the contract builds in some flexibility to extend the work through March 2021 to accommodate any delays that may occur in obtaining necessary information from third parties or completing the analysis, as well as any follow-up or further analysis that council may request beyond the initial scope of work described in the contract.”

The study is expected to cost nearly $55,000, which was mostly covered by $35,000 in existing funds, but the city will have to make a 2020 budget amendment for the rest of the money.

In short, FCS will be looking at four options: continuing to contract with Mountain View, being annexed into Mountain View’s fire district, being annexed into a Regional Fire Authority, and creating a city-owned fire department.

The study will duly note how Black Diamond’s population is expected to grow from roughly 4,200 to about 19,200 when the Ten Trails housing development is fully built, according to the city’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan, and how that population growth will affect emergency services.

WIDE VARIATION IN COSTS

Members of the Black Diamond City Council and officials from Mountain View Fire and Rescue formed an ad hoc committee and performed their own emergency services study in 2015. Although the report is now five years old, it can give residents a glimpse into how much money the city will have to spend in retaining fire services.

The report first looked at how much it would cost for Black Diamond to form and operate its own fire department.

The city has done this before, from 2000 to 2006, and the report assumes the administration would be the same size as in 2005 with the exception that the fire chief would be a full-time position. The report also assumed no new fire stations would be built, and firefighters would continue to use Station 98 and 99 — this is likely not able to happen now, as these fire stations are old and need to be modernized.

The ad hoc committee determined it would have cost the city about $1.5 million in 2013 to start its own department, a figure that did not include start-up costs. It’s highly likely that cost has increased in the last seven years.

Continuing to contract with Mountain View may not be much less expensive. The 2015 report noted that from 2013 to 2015, the cost of Mountain View’s services rose from $448,000 to 483,000, accounting for inflation.

Last November, the city paid Mountain View about $539,000.

However, Mountain View has been claiming they spend closer to $1 million to serve the city, and wants Black Diamond to put a property taxes increase, or “lid lift”, on a ballot to cover that cost.

Department officials have said they don’t need that extra $500,000 all at once, and have recommended a stair-step approach when it came to property taxes, with each following year having a slightly higher property tax.

Black Diamond could potentially also move some of its budget money around to cover that cost, but that may come at a steep price of reduced police services or other city services.

The cost of being annexed into Mountain View’s fire district may not be expensive up front, but it could have a long-term effect on the city’s property taxes.

Cities can tax residents up to $3.60 per $1,000 in assessed property values. However, that ceiling is lowered when cities are a part of various special tax districts. For example, Black Diamond is annexed into the King County Library System, which brings its maximum tax rate down to $3.10; KCLS uses the difference of 50 cents to apply its own property tax in the city.

Black Diamond’s maximum tax rate would fall further to $1.60 if its annexed into Mountain View; the fire department could then levy its own property tax onto residents with that $1.50 difference.

The city’s 2020 tax rate is $1.87 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

In short, it’s possible that while residents’ city property tax would be slightly less, their fire department property tax could make a sizable jump. This exchange could also affect Black Diamond’s public safety budget, the majority of which is funded through the current property tax.

The 2015 ad hoc committee fire study determined that if the city was annexed into Mountain View that year, it would lose about $12,000 in property tax revenue.

As for joining up with a Regional Fire Authority, the 2015 ad hoc committee did not determine how much that option would cost the city.


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