Yelm-area fire consolidation runs slightly ahead

Another election, another tight race.

A proposal to consolidate the City of Yelm and two neighboring rural fire districts into a regional fire authority was leading by just seven votes, Tuesday night’s election returns show.

It was the same proposal voters turned down by a total of 12 votes in August after a recount.

“All we need to do is just stay ahead,” said Rita Hutcheson, chief of Southeast Thurston Fire and EMS.

Once again, voters within the City of Yelm and the Rainier Fire District were supportive, while those in the Yelm Fire District were turning it down by more than 150 votes.

The proposal requires a simple combined majority to pass.

A regional fire authority enables districts to consolidate and put more money toward front-line response by eliminating duplicative jobs. Two key features make an authority different from a merger or a contract for service: A planning committee has the flexibility to determine how an authority operates and is governed, and voters must approve it.

Property owners in all three districts would pay the same tax rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value for fire and basic emergency medical response under the authority. City residents now pay less for the service than those living in the rural districts.

The city contracts with the Yelm Fire District for firefighting and emergency medical response. With the authority’s approval, the city’s regular property tax levy would have been reduced because it would no longer need to pay for the contract. However, the fire authority would levy a new tax in 2011, resulting in an increase in property taxes for the owner of a $250,000 home of $297.50, based on 2009 figures.

Yelm residents could see an increase in property taxes even if the proposal fails. The city’s contract with the fire district expires at the end of 2010, and City Administrator Shelly Badger said the city would have to pay more to continue the contract, meaning less money for other services.

In August 2007, voters in both rural fire districts approved measures to keep the levy rate they pay at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value for the next several years. The two districts signed an agreement to operate jointly and pursue formation of a regional fire authority in 2008.

Voters elect city council members to oversee the service contract with the district. With passage of the authority, they would elect members to the governing board overseeing the new organization.

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427