The Pragmatic Sophist


Rick Sorrels

Important measures on Aug. 4 primary ballot

There are two important measures on the Aug. 4 primary ballot that require close scrutiny. 

Fire District 16 fire levy 

This levy to increase real property tax will help fund the Key Peninsula fire department over the next six years and will also reset the amount of future levies. The annual property tax rate would increase from $1.34 to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. 

It would be impossible to present in-depth information here on Washington tax laws, initiatives, imposed limits, priority distribution regarding lower-level municipal governments and contradictory impacts. In brief, it is very complicated, so I will attempt to cut to the bone. 

There are two reasons to vote against the proposed levy. One, the voter believes that he or she cannot afford the payment and two, it is the only opportunity that the voter has to punish the fire commissioners for some reason. 

The first reason only affects persons who actually own real estate for which property tax is paid. Renters and leaseholders get a free ride for fire protection and emergency medical. Comments below will explain how it is more cost-effective for property owners to vote for the levy. 

For the second reason, the forced retirement of a beloved fire chief, Tom Lique, without any discernable reason or notice or explanation would be the most recent act to raise the most ire. To that, the voter should choose a different voice and recognize that larger immediate concerns exist. 

The fire department provides essential services, all focused on protecting life and property. Funding comes primarily from property taxes paid by property owners in the district. During 2013, FD-16 received a total of $4.1 million from property taxes, and for 2014, that dropped to $3.3 million. For 2012 and 2011, it was $3.2 million. 

In recent years, four of the last eight fire levies have failed. This was at a time when costs for everything have increased. For example, in the last few years, the price for milk has increased from $1 per gallon to $3-$4 per gallon. A loaf of bread from under $1 to $3. A chain-link fence post from under $3 to $12. Go see what just one pound of hamburger costs now.   

Fire department operating costs have increased too, while revenues to pay basic costs have lost purchasing power, resulting in an inability to fill vacant positions, delayed equipment purchases, delayed maintenance, et cetera. 

Property owners may be unaware that the insurance industry does a detailed evaluation of all fire departments each five years, with the results determining how much is charged for fire and homeowners insurance. Factors reviewed include age of fire trucks, response time, number of firemen on duty, distance that volunteer firemen must travel to respond, et cetera. 

Fire Chief Guy Allen says that the most recent insurance industry evaluation for the district has been released, but not yet received. Allen expects us to be hard hit for age of equipment, especially for Herron Island and Longbranch, where the stations are unmanned and there are few volunteers who live close to the stations. 

The expected increase in insurance rates would far exceed any property tax increase resulting from the proposed levy. Further deterioration in fire department revenue and expenditures will surely see insurance rates increase for the entire district.  

In this particular case, greed and self-interest, by itself, should ensure passage of the levy. 

Pierce County advisory vote 

This advisory vote informs the county council whether the voters want or don’t want the county to proceed with a new administrative building that would cost about $230 million. This advisory vote is in advance of a referendum (with 38,648 signatures) that will appear on the November ballot — which, if passed, would overturn a council vote and stop construction. 

Pierce County is one of only seven Washington counties that have chosen to become “home-ruled,” with its own charter (Constitution), responsible for creating its own laws and choosing how to conduct business under the direction of its own citizens. The other 32 Washington counties operate under laws and rules established by the Washington State Legislature. 

In a home-ruled county, it is logical and expected that the county council would seek a nonbinding advisory vote on such a large expenditure of its citizens’ tax money. Expect a barrage of mailings explaining the county’s arguments for the construction. 

Incidentally, every 10 years, the citizens vote for representatives for a Charter Review Commission that proposes amendments to the County Charter. This is that year. 

The six months that the charter review representatives will meet during 2016 may well result in a charter amendment that would require binding advisory votes for future high-dollar construction projects. 

A vote in favor of construction would still face the November referendum vote. A vote against construction would likely cause the Pierce County Council to rescind its decision, making the November referendum moot.