Fire district goes for 6 percent

The North Whidbey Fire & Rescue commissioners delved into the I-747 controversy this week by deciding to raise property taxes by 6 percent, if that turns out to be legal.

Initiative 747, proposed by Tim Eyman, was approved by voters in 2001. Generally, it limits taxing districts to a property tax increase of 1 percent or the rate of inflation annually. Anything higher needs a vote of the people. Prior to I-747, jurisdictions could raise property taxes as much as 6 percent annually.

The six-year reign of I-747 ended Nov. 8 when the Washington State Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, decided it was unconstitutional. This restored the 6 percent limit to local taxing jurisdictions, at least temporarily.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has called for the Legislature to reinstitute the I-747 limits, but the next session doesn’t start until the middle of January. Republicans are pressuring her to call a special session before then.

Caught up in this political swirl are local taxing districts, such as North Whidbey Fire and Rescue. They have to submit their final 2008 budgets to the Island County Assessor’s Office by Nov. 30, before the I-747 issues are sorted out.

The fire district commissioners decided Tuesday to have it both ways. Commissioners Bruce Carman, T.J. Lamont and Larry Morse passed resolutions raising property taxes at the rate of inflation, pegged at 2.08 percent (the Implicit Price Deflator), with the codicil that the increase will be 6 percent if that proves to be legal.

Commissioner Morse said I-747 has been particularly hard on all fire districts’ equipment replacement funds.

“We have a few more years until we have to begin replacing our major equipment,” Morse said. “We have six Class A fire engines and the first four are going to have to be replaced within a year of one another so that we can continue to maintain our insurance coverage.”

Commissioner Carman also expressed no reservations about increasing taxes 6 percent. “My justification is basically our call rates continue to increase,” he said. “We no have paid on-call employees and that causes increased operating costs as well. The 6 percent won’t cover all of the increasing operating expenses, but it will help.”

The 6 percent isn’t guaranteed, but it will be collected if that’s how the I-747 controversy plays out.

“If we are allowed to collect it, we will be able to collect it,” Fire Chief Marv Koorn said Friday in explaining the resolution.

Koorn said the difference between the 2.08 percent inflationary property tax increase and the 6 percent increase is about $64,000. “It all helps when we’re trying to balance the budget,” he said.

Pat Kohlmann, chief deputy in the Island County Assessor’s office, said Friday that she hadn’t yet heard of the fire district’s action, but she said there’s a lot of confusion over the I-747 situation. “I’ve heard of people hedging their bets and coming up with two budget,” she said. That’s exactly what North Whidbey Fire and Rescue did.

The chief expressed the hope that taxpayers will understand the fire district’s need for more revenue. “I would hope people would understand,” he said. “Over the past five years we haven’t kept up with inflation for fuel and equipment. We know the needs, we’ve been falling behind, it’s the wise thing to do.”

The fire district’s total property tax revenue budget for next year is $1.411 million, up from $1.28 million in 2007. That includes the 6 percent increase, if it’s allowed, and taxes generated by new construction.

The 2008 budget also includes extra revenues from the hospital district to implement the Basic Life Support program, where fire district emergency crews start transporting people to the hospital.

Taxpayers will be asked for more money next Feb. 19 when the fire district will propose a levy lid increase from the present 67 cents per thousand to $1 per thousand. Revenues will help support the district’s building projects and its fulltime firefighter program.

(News-Times reporter Tim Adams contributed to this article)

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