Key Peninsula Fire District 16 will ask voters to approve renewal of a four-year Maintenance and Operations (M&O) levy in an election Aug. 2. The current levy expires at the end of this year. If it is not renewed, the district will face cuts in staff and training, said Fire Chief Guy Allen.
The district has received strong community approval in the last several years, Allen said, but high voter turnout is essential to renew the levy. At press time, there was no organized opposition.
Washington state law requires all so-called excess levies to pass by a supermajority of at least 60 percent of voters within the fire district, and with an overall turnout of at least 40 percent of the total votes received in the previous general election.
State law further restricts fire district revenue growth to a rate of 1 percent per annum. This imbalance between the annual rate of inflation and the statutory limit can only be remedied through taxpayer-approved levies, Allen said.
"Unlike city fire departments, fire protection districts are the only essential emergency services not supported by sales tax revenues," Allen said. "The vast majority of our revenue comes directly from property tax assessments."
The abrupt drop in real estate values beginning with the 2007 financial crisis caused budget problems for many municipalities and emergency services dependent upon income from property taxes. The Key Peninsula was hit especially hard. The local real estate market is improving now, but has not recovered to the same extent as in neighboring communities.
"Looking at our 2016 operating budget, it quickly becomes apparent there is little fat left to trim and no other category within our operating budget, aside from salaries, where we could make up for an $800,000 loss in annual revenue were the levy to fail," Allen said. "The reduction in staff and subsequently our service capacity would be considerable."
Allen also said that staffing, both of professional firefighters and volunteers, directly affects homeowners' insurance rates based on an industry rating scale applied to each fire station. Without adequate station staff, property owners would likely see homeowner insurance rates rise.
"Tight finances eliminated much of our budget for continuing education on best practices in firefighting," said volunteer battalion chief and administrative assistant Anne Nesbit. "The science of firefighting is evolving all the time. Our people need to be current."
During a recent presentation to the Key Peninsula Sportsmen’s Club, Allen said, "The upcoming M&O maintenance levy will not increase your tax bill. Approval of the new levy will keep both current funding levels and staffing exactly the same. We’re not asking voters for more money, we’re asking voters for the same amount you approved four years ago."
The Pierce County auditor estimated that renewing the levy would maintain the current rate of approximately $6.50 per month for a home valued at $200,000.
When asked whether the department had a reserve account, Allen said, "Industry standards suggest we hold 20 percent of our annual operating budget in reserve, which in today’s dollars equals roughly a million dollars. Currently, our reserve account holds less than $200,000, so you can see it will take a while to reach our goals. This year, we’re retiring the bond debt from building the stations, which is a relief. Our future financial goals include building back up our reserves to prudent levels."
If the levy fails in August, the Board of Fire Commissioners may have little choice but to put it before the voters again in November. "Simply getting on the ballot costs us between $12,000 and $15,000—an additional cost the district would prefer to avoid," Allen said.
"Provided we pass our upcoming M&O levy, there will be no levy in 2017 or 2018," said Allen at the Sportsmen's Club meeting. "We are on schedule to renew our EMS levy in 2019, and we’ll be looking to renew this 2016 M&O levy four years from now in 2020," he said. "But first things first. We must pass this M&O levy and voter turnout is especially important. However you personally choose to vote, the important thing is that you do."
Election Day is August 2. Registered voters will receive mail-in ballots beginning July 15. Ballots must be returned by August 2. Fire District 16 's M&O levy is called Proposition 1.
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