Franklin Co. could decide on 'doughnut hole' today

Franklin County could decide tonight whether to allow Pasco to continue efforts to annex a so-called county "doughnut hole" using a new process.

Franklin County commissioners plan a 7:30 p.m. public hearing at the Franklin County Courthouse to decide if they want to enter talks with Pasco and Franklin Fire District 3.

Without the county's approval, the process created by the state Legislature to use an interlocal agreement for annexation can't happen.

The fire district and city started talking earlier this year about annexing the two-mile area, most of which is between Sylvester and Argent roads and Road 52 and 100.

It's a negotiation that Roger Lenk, one of the 4,000 residents of the "doughnut hole," said was premature.

He said documents he received through a public document request show the city is considering buying the fire district station at 1208 Road 48 and lowering the ambulance fees the district pays the city.

Lenk said the fire district has botched the process by seemingly already creating an agreement.

"This is not how open public government works," he said.

Lenk said he continues to oppose the county entering talks about the annexation plan. He said he doesn't feel that the public can trust the fire district or city.

But Fire District 3 Chairman Todd Blackman said the district needed to feel like there was enough on the table to make the process worth exploring.

Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins said the new process doesn't mean the city and district can't discuss the issue before starting formal talks. It is common for staff to work on an issue before bringing it to the city council, he said.

Nothing is a done deal unless the city, county and fire district can reach an agreement, with public involvement, Watkins said. State law specifies that public meetings must be part of the process.

The city already has a letter from the fire district expressing willingness to enter into negotiations, said Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield.

The county has until Sept. 8 to respond.

Crutchfield said they can't determine whether an agreement can be reached until talks begin.

Blackman said his gut feeling about annexation is similar to what residents have expressed, wanting to keep things the same because he enjoys the country lifestyle. But the reality is that entering talks is a chance to preserve that lifestyle rather than just dealing with an annexation that happens.

Believing that the city won't eventually annex the doughnut hole is unrealistic, he said.

Franklin Fire District 3 Chief Les Litzenberger said the fire district isn't eager to fight the annexation because it lost when it challenged the annexation of more than 600 acres in the Riverview area in 2002.

The fire district challenged to the state Supreme Court a city annexation that used petitions, but the petition method was eventually upheld in 2004.

It will be costly and complicated for the fire district to transition out of west Pasco, Blackman said.

Because if the annexation is done piece-meal under the old process, the fire district essentially would have the same demands for service but less assessed value and no chance to receive some shared revenue from Pasco during the transition, Litzenberger said.

That would make it more difficult for the district to minimize tax increases to those remaining in the district while maintaining services, he said. The fire district could lower its budget to keep the levy rate from increasing for taxpayers.

But the district's budget doesn't have much to trim. After the last annexation, the district cut two paid positions and changed its remaining 51/2 positions to being cross-trained where possible. For example, Litzenberger said, the secretary also is an emergency medical technician and firefighter.

About 40 percent to 50 percent of the district's calls come from the doughnut hole area, Litzenberger said. The majority are calls for ambulance service.

Franklin County Commission Chairman Bob Koch said agreeing to talk about a possible plan would at least get the county's voice heard.

Otherwise, the city can annex two portions of the doughnut hole because those landowners holding 60 percent or more of the assessed property value already have signed an agreement to not oppose annexation when they hooked up to city water.

"It's going to happen whether you sit and talk to them or not," Koch said.

Koch said several residents at a recent meeting said they want the county to least enter the talks.

Watkins said some residents have told him they want to ensure they get the best deal possible and have an orderly process, rather than a sudden change from county to city.

"That should be one of the functions of government, to plan for change," Watkins said. "And things are changing."

Watkins said the process will be a chance to get to the facts. For example, while it is true that the city requires garbage service and the county doesn't, current residents of the area would be able to keep horses, livestock and hobby farms.

People say government is too expensive, Watkins said. Bringing the area into the city will make it less expensive and more efficient for local governments, he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com