Fire commissioners for King County Fire Protection District No. 44, also known as Mountain View Fire and Rescue, have adopted a resolution that places a ballot issue on the April 23 election asking the public to consider a four-year levy that will allow the district to maintain current staffing and service levels.
Declining assessed property values have caused the district’s revenue to drop $1,850,151 from 2008 to 2013. Cutbacks have already been made in the last two years to the operating budget by eliminating five administrative, support and maintenance personnel and leaving a firefighter position vacant.
In each of the last two years, the district has supplemented the budget with emergency reserve funds. In 2013, District No. 44 saw a further reduction in assessed property values of 9.21% and a further reduction in operating revenues of $283,685.
Fire District No. 44 is funded by property taxes that are based on yearly assessed valuations. According to the district, assessed valuations have decreased 39.8% percent over the last four years, which equals a $1,850,151 drop in revenue. The district currently collects $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for operational expenditures, the maximum statutory limit for fire districts that employ career firefighters, said Fire Chief Greg Smith.
"...In essence, it is not our collection rate (1.50) that is the problem," Smith wrote Monday to Patch. "It is the Assessed Value of the District. I would compare it to cutting a regular pie into eight pieces and then cutting a small pie into eight pieces. You still get 1/8 of the pie, but it is a much smaller piece. ...That smaller piece of pie is not enough to maintain the same level of service as the regular pie..."
If the 'excess' levy is approved, the additional maximum tax is estimated not to exceed about $31 each year or an additional $2.58 per month for fire protection and emergency medical services, per $100,000 assessed valuation.
That would total 31 cents more per $1,000, or about $1.81/$1,000 AV total under this year's assessed value of the district. Because the levy rate is specific at $650,000 each year for four years, if the assessment value for the district increased in any of those years, the excess levy rate would go down to less than 31 cents.
Smith clarified the excess levy would cover just operational expenses rather than capital expenses. The latter was covered by a general obligation bond that voters passed in 2008, but spending those funds are restricted to capital items such as a new fire station or new engines.
District No. 44 in the last five years has been able to maintain the minimum firefighter staffing of six career firefighters on duty during the day, he said. The district is a “combination department” utilizing both career and volunteer firefighter/EMTs.
Career firefighters enable the district to provide a daytime response, when most of the volunteers are at work or attending college. The district has 17 career firefighters assigned to staff three stations and an average of 75-100 volunteers protecting 70 square miles out of eight fire stations. At one station, a career firefighter and captain are on duty 24 hours seven days a week to provide supervision and oversee the emergency operations in the evenings. Two stations are staffed by career firefighters between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.; all other staffing is provided by volunteers. The district responds to an average of over 1,700 incidents each year, about 70% of these are emergency medical related.
“The foremost concern is the district’s ability to maintain the day time staffing while volunteers are at their regular jobs," said Smith.
Further budget cuts in 2014 would diminish the capacity to fund overtime costs to fill vacant staffing when career firefighters are on sick leave, vacation, etc. This would require the “browning out” or closing of a station during the day should adequate staffing not be available.
"We don’t think we would have to lay off any career firefighters in 2014 but absolutely will not be able to fund overtime costs; any of these cutbacks will reduce the district's ability to maintain the current level of service in 2014," Smith said. "What steps we might have to take in 2015 is not yet known."
District leaders hope this 'excess' levy spanning 2014-2017 can help preserve current staffing levels and will no longer be needed after the end date.
“It appears that property values are on their way back up,” Smith said. “This levy should be the helping hand we need to get us through until we see revenues return to what they were prior to the recession. It took us a couple of years to see the true impact of property value decline; it will undoubtedly take a couple of years for improvements in values to rectify our funding situation. I am concerned about the safety of the citizens and our firefighters; this is a very serious situation."
Smith continued, “I have been the fire chief here for 20 years. Never has the economic impact of property values obstructed our capacity to maintain a minimum level of service. We have always been able to find an avenue to overcome a couple years of declining property values; however never have these circumstances persisted this long. This is the first time we have had to ask for an excess levy. The commissioners felt prior to reductions that will diminish our ability to maintain the current level of service, it is important to ask the voters what level of service they wish to maintain.”
The district will be hosting two public meetings to provide information related to the levy. Each will take place at regular board meetings on March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Fire Station 95 (32316 148th AVE SE, Auburn) and again on March 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Fire Station 96 (17920 400th AVE SE). The district has posted and will continue to post updates related to this levy at the district web site www.kcfd44.org.
Questions can be directed to Chief Smith at 253-735-0284, or firstname.lastname@example.org.