Leaders of one of Pierce County’s largest fire districts say a property tax increase is needed to maintain service after an unprecedented drop in revenue.
East Pierce Fire & Rescue’s proposed maintenance and operation levy would raise $6.2 million total over 2013 and 2014, helping to make up for some of what has been lost in the past several years as property values have plummeted, the leaders said.
Rick Kuss, chairman of the district’s commission, said “nobody wants to see more taxes coming.” But, he said, “I’ve been in fire service 42 years. I’ve never seen a financial situation like this.”
Opponents say the district – which serves about 85,000 people over 152 square miles – hasn’t done enough to cut costs before going to taxpayers.
“The easy way out is to ask voters for additional dollars,” said Don Nelson, a former Edgewood volunteer firefighter and chief.
The fire district includes Bonney Lake, Sumner, Lake Tapps, Edgewood, Milton, South Prairie and Wilkeson. It formed in 2000 with the merger of the Bonney Lake and Lake Tapps fire departments and Pierce County Fire District 24; it since has grown through mergers and annexation.
District taxpayers are assessed $2 per $1,000 of assessed value for fire and EMS services. The levy would add an estimated 38 cents per $1,000 in 2013 and 43 cents per $1,000 in 2014.
The money generated would help preserve staffing levels and training, among other things, said Chief Jerry Thorson.
If it passes, “we won’t have to take any units out of service,” Thorson said. Without it, the district might have to reduce staff, he said.
The district has about 130 employees, mostly firefighters. This year’s operating budget is roughly $20 million.
East Pierce, like other fire districts across Pierce County, relies heavily on property taxes; they account for about 90 percent of revenues, Thorson said.
But property values, which are used to calculate those taxes, have fallen the past several years. The district estimates its annual property tax revenue has dropped 31 percent since 2009. (That includes next year’s projected revenue, based on county Assessor-Treasurer office data).
The maintenance and operations levy needs 60 percent voter approval to pass. Ballots must be submitted by Election Day, Aug. 7.
Nelson, the former Edgewood volunteer, said he’s not convinced East Pierce has done all it can to rein in labor and other costs. He pointed to a recent $2.5 million land purchase of about 3 acres in Bonney Lake as the site of a future headquarters station; the headquarters today is in leased space.
Nelson also sits on the board of Mt. View-Edgewood Water Co., the largest water provider in Edgewood. General manager Marc Marcantonio said the fire district has never met its obligation to annually report its inspection and maintenance of fire hydrants in the water company’s service area, something he described as “concerning.”
Thorson said that issue has now been addressed. And he said the Bonney Lake land was purchased using commissioner-approved bonds; the district will have to pay only interest the first several years.
There aren’t immediate plans to build a permanent headquarters station, but having one will save money in the long term, Thorson said.
He said East Pierce has made deep reductions, including a 5 percent pay cut this year for staff. It also has reduced funds for training, education and prevention, and has delayed vehicle and station maintenance, among other savings, the chief said.
“We recognize it’s a really tough time to be asking for additional funding,” Thorson said. “We wouldn’t do this unless we really felt it was needed.”