Fire chiefs say county tax plan is misleading

EVERETT — At least six local fire chiefs say they have serious concerns about the Snohomish County Council’s plans to float a criminal justice sales tax measure.

The chiefs say the current draft of the tax measure would mislead voters into thinking some of the money could be used for firefighting. They’re also worried that message would compete with fire department levies running on the same ballot in the Aug. 2 election.

The fire chiefs say they support additional resources for law enforcement but not the language of the county’s current proposal, the title of which includes the phrase “criminal justice and fire protection purposes.”

The tax proposal is scheduled for a public hearing at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

“The reality is this ordinance and ballot title is a lie,” Gold Bar Fire Chief Eric Andrews wrote in a letter to council members. “I realize that is a strong word, and I know none of you knowingly would want to include this, but it is clearly misrepresentative of the funding that this levy will provide.”

Sheriff Ty Trenary on Thursday said he was working on an amendment to the legislation that would remove the language causing backlash.

“There was never any intent to hurt our fire districts,” Trenary said. “I believe we will get this corrected.”

The legislation proposes a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to support law and justice. The county says the money would be used to add deputies and prosecutors and address the community heroin epidemic and other crime problems.

If voters approve the measure, the average household in the county would pay an extra $94.37 a year, or 2 cents per $10 purchase. The measure would apply county-wide and raise approximately $25 million annually.

The ordinance language was drafted with the idea that cities that receive some of the revenues could use the money for their fire departments, Trenary said. That raised hackles with the chiefs of fire districts, which operate separately from any city government. Fire districts cover almost three-quarters of the county, and many cities have annexed into districts or contract with the districts for coverage.

In those cities, “not one fire protection improvement will occur,” Andrews said.

He’s worried that the confusion of what appears to be multiple fire-related tax increases will be “the demise of my levy and several other districts’ levies,” he wrote.

If the “fire protection” language is removed, the fire chiefs say they will withdraw their complaints.

“We really support the sheriff’s office and law enforcement,” Andrews said in an interview. “We just don’t support that title.”

District 7 Fire Chief Gary Meek on Thursday morning sent what he called a “blitz email” to his fellow chiefs, asking them to also write the County Council.

Meek told the chiefs, most of whom saw the ordinance late Wednesday, to send a message at Monday’s meeting with a “strong show of force.”

County leaders are “taxing the county citizens for a service and for money that is stated it’s going toward fire protection, but we’re not going to see a penny,” Meek said in an interview.

Among the items scheduled for the August election is the proposed merger between District 7 and neighboring District 3 in Monroe. In addition, at least three fire departments in the county have levy measures planned, some for maintenance and operations and some for emergency medical services.

The other chiefs who cited concerns on Thursday included Jamie Silva at District 3 in Monroe, Ron Simmons at District 4 in Snohomish, Merlin Halverson at District 5 in Sultan, and Jim Haverfield at District 17 in Granite Falls.

Halverson is president of the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association.

“We’re unanimously behind more deputies, but we’re unanimously behind that this ballot (title) has to be changed,” he said. “When this gets cleared up, then we can all march forward in lock-step.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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