Voters Approve 6-Year Fire Levy Lid Lift

The Key Peninsula voted yes for Fire District 16, allowing it to upgrade equipment and expand staff while considering a new headquarters in Key Center.

Fire Commissioners Stan Moffett and Frank Grubaugh meet with the Chief.
Fire Commissioners Stan Moffett and Frank Grubaugh meet with the Chief. Lisa Bryan, KP News

A six-year Key Peninsula fire levy lid lift was approved in the Aug. 3 primary election vote by 62% to 38%, or 2,696 yes to 1,631 no votes in a typical 22% off-year summer voter turnout. The vote replaced the lid lift approved in 2015.

“We are beyond grateful for the continued support, for all of it, this community has just been phenomenal for us,” said KP Fire Chief Dustin Morrow. “And while we don’t sometimes always see things exactly the same, it is amazing that in 28 months this community has stepped forward three times to say we’re with you fire district, and it feels great.”

The lid lift will allow the KP fire department to collect the full amount of a previously approved fire levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which had fallen to about $1.23 per $1,000 as assessed values rose, according to Morrow.

Levy revenue falls as values rise because annual increases in levy revenue are restricted by a state property tax limit. The result is that most taxing district levy rates fall below the authorized level over time. A levy limit can be increased only by a lid lift.

Morrow said lifting the lid would generate about $1 million a year for the department.

“We get the one-time opportunity to reset the rate at $1.50 for the first year, and that’s new money for us,” he said. “Then as assessed value starts to go up, our rate declines (over the next five years).”

The average assessed value of a KP home in 2020 was approximately $400,000, according to the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office. The lid lift increased taxes by approximately $108 a year for a hypothetical $400,000 home, restoring the original levy to $600, or $50 a month.

A few days before the election, campaign signs urging a “no” vote appeared on the KP along with posts on local social media complaining about rising taxes, including a claim that the department was trying to raise property taxes by 36% over six years.

The language in the ballot measure also included the phrase “(and) set the limit factor at six percent (6%) for each of the succeeding five (5) years …”

“I understand the concern,” Morrow said. “The 6% is not related to the 1.5% rate; it refers to the amount that has been collected that can be spent. It gives us authority to have the opportunity to raise the following year’s budget 6% above the previous year’s budget, and that’s how people are putting together those two figures.”

One KP resident who observed the KPFD town hall meetings promoting the lid lift said, “I was struggling with the business aspects of it.” The resident, who declined to be identified, expressed a frustration with a lack of specifics.

“If you have a six-year plan, what do you think you’re going to raise the budget by each year, what are you going to purchase and when? And when you do purchase it, when is it going to be implemented? I couldn’t find that.”

The board of fire commissioners has adopted a pay-as-you-go strategy, according to Morrow, to replace fire apparatus, for some facilities repair, and personnel expenses. The department has also been able to afford staffing the Wauna, Home and Longbranch stations for a year now, he said.

“Hopefully, this budget cycle, I know we won’t be able to get another station staffed but we will be able to get an additional unit staffed for a portion of time and it’s likely going to go up north to join the medic up there (in Wauna) because that’s where most of the service demands are.”

That would mean hiring more personnel.

“I think we’re going to go after six immediately,” Morrow said. “That will allow us to staff up to 11 per shift, which will be a big deal for us. We’d have two staffed engines, two staffed medics, a staffed battalion chief, and a duty chief at Station 46 (Key Center).”

The department is also studying the possibility of a new headquarters in Key Center to replace its current facility built in 1972 and has signed conditional purchase and sale agreements for three parcels in Key Center. Two parcels near Sunnycrest Nursery were secured with an offer of $1.2 million and a third parcel including the former Reed’s restaurant was secured for an offer of $975,000.

The department has 180 days after the seller signs to perform its due diligence and decide whether to buy a parcel. No parcel has been purchased to date and no money, including earnest money, will change hands until the department makes a decision, according to Morrow.

Stan Moffett, chair of the KP fire commission, confirmed that the department has signed a promissory note for a low-interest loan to cover a purchase but that note can be returned without penalty. If a new building is feasible, that could mean a capital bond or other financing in coming years to pay for it, he said.

“The intention right now is to make sure that we are in a planning cycle, that we secure our future, hence the conversations about property that are occurring,” Morrow said. The department hired an architecture firm to determine whether and how a new facility — perhaps serving multiple community purposes — could be built and what is needed to maintain or upgrade existing stations.

“We are at the earliest a year or more away from understanding that landscape,” Morrow said. “I think the earliest this community could see a conversation about a bond is probably 2023, and even that might be optimistic.”