Voters in Lacey and rural Fire District 3 will receive ballots in the mail this week with a proposal to adjust the boundaries of the district to include the city of Lacey.
The Olympian’s editorial board is encouraging a “yes” vote.
It’s called a fire district annexation, but this ballot measure does not transfer property from one jurisdiction to another. Fire district residents will not suddenly find themselves within Lacey’s boundaries. The annexation in this case simply enlarges the district boundaries so that voters in Lacey will have a direct say on operation of their fire district, the tax rate and level of fire and emergency medical response service.
This is an all-mail election. Ballots must be returned to the county auditor by 8 p.m. on April 27. Auditor Kim Wyman and her staff will open up 14 drop boxes in the eastern portion of the county as a convenience for voters who don’t want to put their ballots in the mail.
The important thing is for the 47,250 voters to cast informed ballots. In small, single-issue elections such as this, it’s sometimes easy to miss the fact that an election is at hand. Those with strong passions on either side of a measure can have an undue influence on the results. In a case of this magnitude, it’s important that the will of the entire electorate be heard.
NO FIRE DEPARTMENT
Lacey is closing in on Olympia as the largest city in Thurston County. But as hard as it is to believe, Lacey has not had its own fire department in its 44 year history. Instead, the Lacey City Council has entered into a contract with Fire District 3 commissioners. Under that contract, district firefighters respond to calls for service in Lacey. Combined, firefighters respond to about 10,000 calls a year — 80 percent for medical assistance, 5 percent for fires and the remaining 15 percent for miscellaneous calls ranging from broken water pipes to flooding and gas leaks. The contractual relationship worked well for both sides — until about two years ago. Then things got real ugly, real fast.
Reflecting on the mistakes of the last 24 months, Lacey Mayor Tom Nelson and Fire Commissioner C.H. “Skip” Houser, agree that communications between the two sides simply broke down. Lacey city officials wanted more say on the budget, on equipment purchases and how that equipment was deployed. Fire district officials, faced with increasing demands for services, wanted more money from Lacey.
The dispute went public. Neither side was listening to the other. In the words of Nelson, “Anger overcame sensibility.” Deliberate decision-making fell victim to passion and emotion.
From our perspective, both sides share the blame. Fire district commissioners approved a labor contract giving firefighters a 17 percent salary increase at a time when government agencies and the private sector began slashing payrolls. There were legitimate concerns about rolling the ladder truck on routine calls and a decision to close the Hawks Prairie fire station understandably angered residents.
Out of the blue, the Lacey City Council voted unanimously to go their own way and explore the option of creating their own fire department — a proposal that carried upfront costs of $12 million price tag, far in excess of the $4.8 million the city pays the fire district under their contract. The council acted in haste, without holding a public hearing or listening to constituents. A lawsuit ensued and both sides dug in.
Motivated by self preservation, firefighters got involved in the political process. They recruited, financed and worked hard for the election of three new City Council members. Contrary to what Nelson believes, the fire district issue played a pivotal role in last fall’s election — an election that saw three entrenched incumbent council members unceremoniously bounced out of office. They simply were outmaneuvered, outspent and outworked by the firefighters and their slate of candidates. The political reality of a split council forced Lacey officials to look at their options. They could continue down the same path of conflict and name calling, or they could be adults, swallow their pride and work in collaboration with the fire district toward annexation.
They chose the latter course — thankfully.
A pre-annexation agreement was signed. It calls for the expansion of the fire district commission from three to five members — finally giving Lacey residents the voice they have needed on the policy-making fire commission. Beyond being able to elect fire commissioners and having a direct vote on levy and bond issues, Lacey residents would likely see a slight increase in their property taxes for 2011. It’s estimated that the owner of a $250,000 home would pay an additional $30 a year in taxes.
Rural residents likely will see a slight dip in their property taxes. It all depends on the assessed valuation of property and improvements within the entire boundary. After that first year, city and rural residents will pay the levy rate and any increase would require a levy lid vote.
From the acrimonious feud has come a sensible solution — annex the city into the fire district. Taxes will stay about the same, insurance ratings should not change and district and city residents will have an equal say on operations of their merged fire department. That’s why voters in the city and in the fire district should approve the annexation proposal on April 27.