Mountain View Fire and Rescue has officially announced its intention to no longer serve Black Diamond.
At the moment, city residents shouldn’t panic. The city and the fire department have until Jan. 1, 2023, to come up with another interlocal agreement before services stop, and negotiations are sure to continue.
“The board of commissioners does not take this decision lightly but given the inability to make progress in contract negotiations with the city over the past three years, we did not want to delay a potential termination for another year,” the official Nov. 12 letter reads.
At the moment, Black Diamond is contracted with Mountain View, and expects to pay the department about $571,000, according to the city’s preliminary 2020 budget. That figure is laid out in a 2006 interlocal agreement that stipulates the city will pay Mountain View a flat rate, plus an annual increase based on the All Urban Consumers Price Index (CPI_U).
But for years, Chief Greg Smith and the board of commissioners have believed Black Diamond has been underpaying for the department’s services to the point that the cost of serving Black Diamond is more than how much the Mountain View is paid.
Black Diamond is the only city to contract with Mountain View; every other city or unincorporated area the department serves has been “annexed” into the department’s district, meaning Mountain View collects its own property taxes.
According to Smith and Commissioner James Farrell, every other home in Mountain View’s district is taxed $1.50 in property taxes ($1 for a fire levy, and 50 cents for an EMS levy) per $1,000 in assessed property value.
It’s difficult to compare Black Diamond’s contract with Mountain View to the property taxes the department collects from its other residents, but in terms of spending per person, the two almost come out the same.
According to Black Diamond’s 2020 preliminary budget, the city plans to have $3.2 million to spend on public safety; $2.3 million, or roughly 72 percent, is already earmarked for the Black Diamond Police Department, leaving just about $571,000, or 18 percent, left for Mountain View, and another $322,000, or 10 percent, for the city’s courts.
This translates to Black Diamond paying an estimated $129 per person for Mountain View’s fire services, based on 2017 population data.
Mountain View collected a rough total of $2.4 million in levies from the rest of its district in 2019. With an estimated population of around 19,500, the district spent roughly $123 per person last year, excluding Black Diamond.
But the fire department calculates this a different way.
The majority of Black Diamond’s public safety funds comes from a general property tax; in 2020, city residents can expect to be taxed $1.87 per $1,000 in assessed property value, bringing in roughly $1.89 million in revenue to the city.
But the department is only seeing $517,000, less than a third of that property tax pot, and claims that means Black Diamond residents are paying about two-thirds less for fire services than the rest of the Mountain View’s residents, whose full $1.50 levy goes to the district.
City officials, including Financial Director May Miller, have repeatedly said trying to compare how much money Black Diamond contractually pays Mountain View against the department’s property tax collections is like comparing apples to oranges.
If Mountain View gets its way, they would like the city to give Black Diamond voters the option to be annexed into its fire district by the November 2023 election. This would give Mountain View the ability to tax Black Diamond residents directly, instead of going through the city.
Until then, the department no longer wants to be paid with a flat fee — instead, starting in 2020, they want Black Diamond to pay Mountain View $1 per $1,000 in assessed property value of the whole city. This would increase to $1.10 in 2021, $1.20 in 2022, and $1.50 in 2023.
Mayor Carol Benson has said the city is aware it is not paying Mountain View as much as some other residents, but is still looking at how much less and how much it costs Mountain View to serve the city.
However, she continued in an email interview, “Until we have more retail and sales tax revenue we do not have the ability to fund their proposed increase.”
Chief Greg Smith stressed Mountain View will continue to serve Black Diamond to the best of its ability while elected officials figure this issue out.
The next meeting between Black Diamond and Mountain View is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2020.