This fire truck serves the South County Fire District. (City of Lynnwood)

This fire truck serves the South County Fire District. (City of Lynnwood)

Two fire districts want to change how they make money

South County Fire wants to do a benefit charge, while Sky Valley Fire looks for a levy lid lift.

LYNNWOOD — This year, two fire agencies put forth ballot measures for the Nov. 3 elections, but they aren’t making big asks for more money. One would actually take a hit to its budget.

They’re not trying to buy any fancy new engines, at least not right away. And they’re not looking to build new stations with gleaming modernist architecture.

Rather, with a pandemic and an economic recession underway, they’re trying to reorganize a bit how they collect revenue in preparation for the foreseeable future — a future in which financial stability isn’t too foreseeable.

For South County Fire’s Proposition No. 1, that means switching some of its fire levy funding to what’s called a benefit charge, where property owners pay a fee based on a structure’s size and use. So the owner of a single-family home would pay less than the owner of a multi-story office building. The regional fire authority predicts the charge would reduce costs for about 96% of homeowners.

Proposition No. 1 for Sky Valley Fire, which covers 200 square miles in the eastern reaches of the county, seeks a levy lid lift so the district can do away with another tax it’s been using for the past eight years.

No one wrote an opposing statement for either ballot measure. Both districts will continue to collect their current emergency medical services levies.

Under South County Fire’s proposal, the authority’s fire levy would be reduced from $1.50 to $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Some of that would be replaced by the benefit charge, though the agency’s budget would actually be reduced in 2021 by $1.3 million. The reduction won’t affect operations, Fire Chief Thad Hovis said, thanks to higher-than-expected federal funding for transporting Medicaid patients.

Hovis said he wanted to use the benefit charge to create a “status quo budget.” The revenue will take a hit now, in exchange for stability in the future.

“It helps organizations like fire departments — important essential public services — be less reliant on wide swings in assessed valuations,” Hovis said.

The benefit charge is set at an annual public hearing, and property owners can appeal their assessment. It would apply to unincorporated Snohomish County and the city of Lynnwood. It wouldn’t affect residents in Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace — cities that don’t technically fall within the regional fire authority, but contract its services.

Hovis noted more than a dozen communities in the state use a benefit charge, including Northshore, which has been using it since legislation first made it an option in the 1980s. The fee has been touted as a more equitable way to approach fire district taxation.

The benefit charge would expire in six years, unless passed again by voters. Residents can use a calculator on South County Fire’s website to figure out how much they might owe.

Meanwhile, Sky Valley Fire’s maintenance and operation levy, which collects 19 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, is set to expire at the end of the year. Instead of asking voters to approve it for a third time, they want to pass a levy lid lift, increasing the fire levy from $1.20 to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

It’s an ask the fire district has had to make a few times, thanks to a Tim Eyman-led initiative that bars tax levies from increasing by more than 1% from year to year, even when the value of a property goes up by more.

As a result of that 1% cap, Andrews said it’s easy to fall behind.

“You’re losing the capability of paying for cost increases,” Fire Chief Eric Andrews said. “… The goal of the lid lift is to try to keep up with inflation.”

The increased levy would bring in more money, Andrews said. While the M&O tax brought in about $125,000, the new fire levy could bring in an estimated $249,000, “which sounds small when you’re talking about government, but for us, for our small fire district, it’s a lot,” Andrews said.

Andrews felt the fire district had better odds trying to pass a lid lift, which requires a simple majority. The M&O levy needs a supermajority of at least 60% voter approval.

If the levy lid lift doesn’t pass, “it’s not like we’re going to shut our doors,” Andrews said. But adjustments will have to be made.

For example, the district might consider what to do with its fire apparatus fund, a pot of money that collects funds each year until, eventually, its used to buy a new vehicle to replace an aging piece of equipment. Without the fund, the fire district would likely use a bond to buy a new apparatus. That means paying interest, Andrews said, which would be footed by taxpayers.

It’s been an eventful year for both fire agencies.

In January, South County Fire transported the nation’s first reported case of COVID-19, and since then has been on the front lines of battling the pandemic, so far transporting more than 250 patients who tested positive with the coronavirus. Hovis said his agency wrote the “COVID-19 playbook” for the region’s first responders.

Sky Valley Fire, meanwhile, saw a 13% increase in the number of 911 calls this year, largely due to a summer when people, with nothing better to do during the state-mandated lockdown, went in droves to popular hikes and swimming holes along U.S. 2, sometimes putting themselves in danger.

Hovis said the challenging year has put into sharp perspective the need for first responders.

“The COVID pandemic has certainly made it more of a front page item: the necessity … of public service, like the fire departments, of having EMS and resources available when our community needs it,” he said.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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