Voters in Franklin Fire District 3 will have two choices to make in Tuesday's election: keep a longtime incumbent or choose the challenger who said he's been there too long, and whether to support a levy lid lift.
The tax increase has become an issue in the campaign between incumbent Commissioner Ronald Shuck, who has been on the board for 17 years, and his challenger, Lisa C. Douglas. The term for the three-commissioner board is six years.
The district also has a levy lid lift proposal on the ballot to raise what residents are charged in the 150-square-mile district to $1.50 per $1,000 property tax valuation. That's 32 cents per $1,000 more than the current rate. The proposition needs a 50 percent plus one vote majority to pass.
The proposed increase would cost property owners $150 a year for a $100,000 home, or $32 more a year on the same home than they're paying with current 2014 levy rate.
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The district said the additional tax dollars would go toward ambulances, medical supplies, equipment, training and pay for firefighters, who are also emergency medical technicians.
The fire district has used reserve funds to pay for emergency medical services since the city of Pasco attempted to raise what it charges the fire district for ambulance service. But the district instead ended its agreement with the city.
The district's reserve funds are drying up. And whether the fire district uses its own emergency services or goes with an offer for ambulance services from Pasco or another agency, Shuck said it will still need the extra money.
"We basically said we are going to be out of business," he said of what will happen to the ambulance service if the levy lid lift doesn't pass.
The levy lid lift would take the fire district's tax rate back to where it was before voter-approved state property tax limitations reduced annual tax increases to a maximum of 1 percent per year from up to 6 percent a year, Shuck said.
The change caused the fire district's levy rate to drop to $1.03 per $1,000 before the annexation that went into effect this year raised it to $1.18 per $1,000, as of January 2014. The annexation caused the fire district to lose property value when 608 acres moved into the city.
The reductions have led to the district laying off its assistant chief and tightening its belt by using engines more than 30 years old, Shuck said.
Douglas questions why such a large rate increase is needed.
"If they are coming in a little bit low at $1.03, what are they doing with a 47-cent increase?" she said. "It's like any school bond or any other issue. They need to explain how they are going to spend the money."
Douglas is the wife of Roger Lenk, a resident of the unincorporated "doughnut hole" surrounded by west Pasco. Lenk has opposed annexation of the area, even helping organize a proposition on Tuesday's ballot that would deannex two parts of the area the city has brought in. Douglas said the fire district commissioners worked with the city on the annexation in 2011 without public "input, knowledge or support."
"They shouldn't be working together," she said of the city and fire district. "The fire district, if anything, should be working with the county."
Lenk received a $10,000 settlement with the fire district in 2011 after filing a lawsuit related to public records requests he had made seeking information on discussions on annexation the fire district had with the city of Pasco and Franklin County.
When fire district officials met with the city of Pasco about possible annexation, Shuck said he wanted residents in the unincorporated doughnut hole to vote on the proposal before the area could be annexed.
"We were only trying to do what we thought was right for the county," he said.
Shuck is out of touch with the voters, Douglas said. She also criticizes the district for not making its budget more available.
"My main concern is that he isn't very public," she said. "He doesn't pay much attention to what the public thinks is going on in the district."
Shuck disputes Douglas' claims that the fire district is secretive. He said all the district's board meetings are open to the public, and it has a 25-member citizens' advisory committee that provides valuable advice to commissioners, including the levy lid lift. It is also playing host to three meetings on the levy at its fire stations.
Douglas, who favors term limits for fire commissioners, said Shuck has been on the board too long.
"After 17 years of him being there, I just cannot trust him," she said.
Douglas questions why Shuck also serves as a volunteer firefighter for Fire District 3.
"In simple farm notation, you have the fox watching the hen house," she said.
But serving as a volunteer firefighter for 27 years has allowed Shuck to closely study what the needs of the other firefighters and the community are, he said. While it may be perceived as a conflict of interest, he said everything is above board.
"We get audited every three years by the state of Washington auditor service and we have yet to have any findings against us," he said.
Shuck said he is not paid for his firefighting service, only for attending board meetings.
District commissioners receive $114 for each day a commissioner attends a meeting.
The district has made a number of improvements in recent years, Shuck said. They include $898,794 in renovations to its fire station on Road 36 and Clark Street, which added offices, a classroom, a weight room and living quarters for a resident program.
It also bought two new structural engine trucks and two new wildland engine trucks that will help it fight fires in the Juniper Dunes area, he said. It also added two new water tender trucks, a medium rescue truck and two used ambulances.
The equipment was purchased using money from the regular fire levy, without borrowing money, Shuck said.
Commissioners are looking at candidates to replace Fire District 3 Chief Les Litzenberger, who is retiring Jan. 31, '14, Shuck said.
The fire district should look to expand its service area in Shuck's next term so it can try to compensate for some of the area it has lost because of city annexations, he said.
Fire District 3 is made up of about 2,100 residents, most of them living in the doughnut hole area. District officials have said that they get about 200 ambulance calls per year, about 10 percent of which require a paramedic.
The district hopes to eventually be able to use advanced life support with paramedics, after it pays for start-up costs, Litzenberger has said. Unlike an emergency medical technician, a paramedic can administer drugs.
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w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom