Prosser Fire District 3 could reorganize into a regional fire authority -- one of a growing number in the state and the first in Eastern Washington.
Voters in the district, which covers 176 square miles in western Benton County, including Prosser, will weigh in on the idea in the November election. Ballots will be mailed in mid-October.
Prosser 3 is a partnership of the city and the rural Benton Fire District 3.
Fire District Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. said moving to the regional fire authority model "is the right step to take."
Prosser Mayor Paul Warden pointed to the "vagaries of local government finance," saying "there have been many years where there have been obvious needs for (Prosser 3) and we can't address more than the basic operations just because of the state of finances for the city."
But he said a regional fire authority would bring "stable, ongoing" funding.
Proponents also said it would bring better governance, greater efficiency and improved service. The new organization would be called West Benton Regional Fire Authority.
The funding would change. About 60 percent of Prosser 3's budget comes from a property tax paid by the unincorporated county residents who make up Benton Fire District 3.
The remaining 40 percent comes from the city's general fund, which includes money from city property and sales taxes, among other sources.
If the regional fire authority moves forward, the same fire property tax would be levied in the city and the rural area, at 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in the first year. That would be $114 a year for a $120,000 home.
For county residents, that would mean a relatively slight increase in their existing fire property tax -- amounting to about $12 more a year for the owner of a $120,000 home, which is about the average home value in the area.
In the city, it would be a new tax, but the state caps property taxes, and the city's property tax rate would have to drop by the amount of the regional fire authority rate, so the owner of a $120,000 home would end up paying only about $40 more a year.
The city also would realize some savings by moving to a regional fire authority, and the city council could consider reducing the city's property tax even further, officials said.
They also said fully implementing the regional fire authority plan should eventually drive down homeowners' insurance rates.
The new arrangement would mean dedicated money for equipment, apparatus and facility replacement, as well as training and certifying personnel in the largely volunteer department, officials said. There currently is no dedicated money for replacement and limited money for training and certification.
Seth Johnson, Prosser 3's operations captain, said that "so many people operate on breakdown maintenance (systems) -- if it breaks, you fix it."
But that isn't optimal, leading to a "rob Peter to pay Paul scenario," he said, adding that having dedicated money for apparatus, equipment and facilities allows for implementing long-range plans.
Josh Smith, the training captain, added that, "We never say, 'No we can't put that fire out because we haven't had money to train our folks.' "
"We're going to respond. We need to make sure we have the funding necessary to educate and train our (volunteers)," he said.
Moving to the new model also would streamline and simply governance, officials said.
Under the current partnership, a joint advisory board of three Prosser City Council members and three fire commissioners representing the unincorporated territory oversees Prosser 3.
But the joint board's authority is limited, officials said, noting that the three city council members alone can't make budget decisions for the city -- that takes action from the full council.
With the regional fire authority, a board with two members elected from the city, two from unincorporated county territory and one at-large position would be the governing body, with ultimate decision-making authority.
The proposition needs simple majority approval to pass. The fire authority would form next year, with board members elected in fall 2015 and the property tax collection starting in 2016.
The November election won't be the first time Prosser 3 voters have considered a regional fire authority. A similar measure was up for a vote in 2010 but failed at the ballot box. Officials said they're doing more this time to spread the word.
The district has 24 volunteers and three paid staff, including the two captains and Chief Doug Merritt, who'd remain in the chief post if the regional fire authority move happens.
A citizens task force spent months on the issue and ultimately recommended moving to a regional fire authority.
"You want to make sure that your responsibilities are taken care of, that people are getting proper services and that we improve it over time," and moving to the model fulfills that, said Kevin Hanlon, the task force chairman.
For more information or copies of the regional fire authority plan or other documents, call 509-786-3873 or go to www.prosserfd3.org.
-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald