Our Voice -- Fire district levy lifts: Yes and no

October 24, 2013 

Taxes for fire districts are set to bring in a certain amount of money. The tax rate fluctuates as new houses are built in a taxing district or existing homes are annexed out of it or the value of the homes change. Occasionally those taxing jurisdictions will come back to the voters and ask them to restore their tax rate.

Since Initiative 727 passed in 2001, jurisdictions can raise their levies only by 1 percent each year, unless they go to the voters and approve this levy lid lift.

Some voters in Benton and Franklin counties will see fire levy lid lifts on their ballots, but not all. Franklin Fire District 3 is asking for money to pay for ambulance service and Benton Fire District 1 is asking for money for fire service.

Benton Fire District 1

Folks living within the unincorporated areas of south Kennewick, Finley, Tri-City Heights, El Rancho Reata, Tripple Vista and Badger Canyon are being asked to approve a levy lid lift back to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. The current tax rate sits at $1.38.

Residents of those neighborhoods also will remember when firefighters saved 52 homes from a wildfire this summer.

For a $200,000 home, this would increase the homeowner's tax bill by $24 for the first year (or about $2 a month.) This roughly is an 8 percent increase.

Levy lid lifts can be a one-time thing or for multiple years. This one extends for six years.

The way the measure is written, it allows for an increase of up to 6 percent each year for the next five years if necessary, but in no case will the tax rise above the original $1.50 per $1,000 level.

Voters should be aware that they are approving the possibility of annual rate increases.

Worst-case scenario: The tax keeps going up the full 6 percent every year.

That's not an unreasonable price to pay for public safety and keeping the wildfires away from your property.

We believe this is a reasonable request.

The last time District 1 asked for money was in 2005. The measure failed -- twice. Then in 2008, the rate restored itself because of annexations from the county to the city.

We understand that people don't want to pay more taxes, but we also understand that people don't want their property destroyed. It's not that tough of a call.

The Tri-City Herald recommends approving the Benton Fire District 1 levy lid lift.

Franklin Fire District 3

Residents in Franklin County's District 3 also will see a fire levy lid lift on the ballot, but the funds are being dedicated to ambulance service.

Previously, the district contracted with the city of Pasco for ambulance services. Last year, the city raised its rates and the fire district decided it could provide better service for less money.

Only they can't.

If approved, this proposal would raise $300,000. The district could have continued to get the service from the city for only $90,000 more than what it was paying. And the emergency service from the county would be a "basic" service, compared to a comprehensive service offered by the city.

So residents actually would be paying more for less.

It's baffling to us.

The one thing it does offer to voters is some autonomy from the city of Pasco. It gives them a chance to work things out on their own. For some people, that is of great value.

For us, it isn't worth the cost.

Current tax rate is $1.18 per $1,000 of assessed value. The lid lift would raise that to $1.50 per $1,000. On a $200,000 home, the cost would be $64 per year. The cost isn't exorbitant and, like we stated above, there is a value in public safety. Voters will have to decide where their breaking point is.

Because this is a rural district, it includes large pieces of farmland. The total bill is $300,000, but some farmers will bear a lot more of the cost than the typical homeowner.

It doesn't seem like a fair or economical way to pay for a much-needed service -- especially when there are other options, including a "household" fee that the county could enact to keep big landowners from taking a big hit. Or the district could take another run at a contract with the city.

Maybe the district's voters think it's worth it to sever ties with Pasco, but we think they could do better. The district and Pasco should go back to the negotiating table, and Pasco especially should work harder to offer a cheaper deal.

The Tri-City Herald recommends rejecting the Franklin Fire District 3 levy lid lift.

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