A total of seven Pierce County fire protection districts are asking voters via the Aug. 4 ballot to approve funding for emergency services through property tax levies, as they face what one chief calls “a long climb” out of the economic recession.
But they’re taking different approaches in the amount of money and time they’re asking for.
West Pierce Fire & Rescue will return to voters again in the shortest time. The agency, which protects Lakewood and University Place, seeks renewal of a four-year maintenance and operation levy that supplements its regular levy. Property owners would pay $1.35 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2016, decreasing to $1.22 in 2019.
Most of the tax-seeking fire districts plan to come back to voters in six years.
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The Town of Steilacoom and Pierce County Fire Protection District 23 (Ashford, Elbe and Alder) are both requesting renewal of six-year EMS levies at a cost of 50 cents per $1,000 in property value.
The Key Peninsula Fire Department wants to restore the district’s regular levy to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2016 and raise it as much as 6 percent in the following five years.
Greenwater Fire, on the road to Mount Rainier, is asking for more time. It seeks renewal of a 10-year EMS levy at a rate of 50 cents per $1,000.
And there are two districts that don’t plan to come back to voters at all, unless special circumstances call for it.
Orting Valley Fire & Rescue and Fire Protection District 10, which includes Fife, are both seeking permanent levies.
“It will stabilize our long-term funding,” said Zane Gibson, chief of Orting Valley Fire & Rescue. And “we save taxpayer dollars in not having to fund any additional elections.”
His district has typically asked for a levy renewal every two years.
Gibson said Orting Valley has bounced back from the recession and is close to its 2009 operating levels. He doesn’t anticipate a problem getting the levy passed next month..
However, West Pierce Chief Jim Sharp said his urban district “has not fully come back” from the recession.
Even so, with the help of mergers and consolidations, West Pierce has been able to maintain services and adjust to the new economy, he said.
“Our department has no plans to expand, but we are confident we can maintain services on the street with the current funding (if the levy is renewed),” Sharp said.
Because emergency services revenue is tied to the fluctuating housing market, the last five-plus years have been challenging for fire districts.
“Since property values dropped a lot faster than they came back, we have had a long climb out of the recession,” said Key Peninsula Chief Guy Allen.
Another reason his outlying district hasn’t fully recovered, Allen said, is the levy restriction imposed by Washington voters when they passed state Initiative 747 in 2001.
That initiative reduced the amount of money that a district can ask for, per year, from 6 percent to 1 percent over the previous year’s budget.
“With inflation running between 2 and 4 percent, there is no way to get caught up,” Allen said.
This election, the Key Peninsula district is asking for what’s called a “levy lid lift” to free it from the 1 percent growth restriction.
Chief Allen hopes his district can “make up some of what it lost.” But he remains frustrated with the fact the fire districts receive no sales tax revenue.
“All those fireworks that sold over the Fourth of July, that provided revenue for the cities and counties, we didn’t get any of that money even though we had to deal with all the fires caused by those fireworks,” he said.
MORE ELECTION COVERAGE IN OUR ONLINE GUIDE
To learn about candidates for primary election races throughout Pierce County, visit The News Tribune’s online voter guide at c3.thevoterguide.org/v/tacoma15.