Voters in Yelm and four rural fire districts will decide whether to form the county’s first two regional fire authorities during the Aug. 18 primary election.
Those living in the East Olympia Fire District will vote on a levy-lid lift that will span six years.
The first proposal would consolidate the Littlerock and Grand Mound-Rochester fire districts into the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority. The second would create the Southeast Thurston Fire and EMS Regional Fire Authority, serving Yelm and Rainier and the surrounding area.
The authorities basically would allow fire districts and departments that share a common border to form a single taxing district. Two key features that make an authority different from a merger or contract for service: a planning committee has more flexibility to determine how an authority operates and is governed, and voters must approve it.
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Fire districts nationwide are dealing with limits on property taxes – which provide at least 90 percent of their annual revenue – and increased costs for operations. Consolidating allows fire districts to eliminate duplicative managers and office workers and use any potential savings to hire more firefighters and improve service, proponents say.
The Littlerock and Grand Mound-Rochester fire districts have been partnering for a decade, so the authority would formalize a relationship that has been strengthening over the years.
The tax rate for property owners in both districts will not increase if this measure passes. Last year, voters passed levy-lid-lift measures that raised their rates to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, the maximum allowed under state law. The tax rate would not change under this measure.
The authority would begin operating Jan. 1 if approved.
The tax effect gets trickier for the other proposed regional fire authority.
A “yes” vote would not change the tax rate paid by voters in the Rainier and Yelm fire districts, but it would be an increase for people who live within Yelm’s city limits. The fire districts signed an agreement to merge operations starting in 2008.
The city now levies its property owners $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for basic services, including fire protection and emergency medical response. The city contracts with the Yelm Fire District for those services. A property owner’s total tax bill includes other taxing districts, as well as schools.
With approval of the authority, there would be a separate tax of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value for fire and emergency service, and the city’s tax rate would decline to about $1.60 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The owner of a $250,000 home within the city limits would pay $297.50 more in property taxes a year ($477.50 now compared with $775 under the proposal).
City Administrator Shelley Badger has said the city’s contract with the fire district expires at the end of 2010, and the city would have to pay more to continue the contract, meaning less operating money for other city services, including police and parks.
In addition, she said, taxpayers would have a direct role in how fire and emergency medical service is provided in the authority; now, they have an indirect role by electing the City Council, which oversees the contract.
If approved, the authority’s governing board would convene at the beginning of 2010, but funding wouldn’t be available until the following year. The agencies would operate as they have been in the interim.
The East Olympia Fire District proposal would increase the tax rate to $1.14 per $1,000 of assessed value to be collected next year to $1.50 per $1,000 in 2011, followed by increases of up to 6 percent in the following four years to keep the rate at the statutory maximum.
Fire district officials said a decrease in fire insurance premiums resulting from an improved fire rating for the district and the retirement of a bond next year should offset the costs of the levy during its first two years, if it’s approved.
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427