Fire levy lid lift set for August ballot

Funding increase to help tackle larger call volumes

Kelly Sullivan

Residents under the emergency response umbrella of the recently merged Snohomish County Fire District 7 will be asked to restore the fire levy lid to $1.50 this summer.

The district’s board of commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that will add the measure to the Aug. 2 primary election ballot. If it passes, a homeowner living in the Monroe area, formerly designated Fire District 3, will pay $20 more in taxes in 2018 based on a $400,000 home, and those living in what was formerly designated Fire District 7 will pay $56.

“We want our community to understand how emergency services are funded,” states Fire Chief Gary Meek in a news release. “Lid lifts are one tool we have to keep up with rising costs to provide service and allow us to not have large spikes in taxes for several years.”

Fire districts are limited to collecting no higher than 1 percent more in tax revenue than the year prior if the agency chooses to make the request, said Assistant Fire Chief of Support Services Steve Guptill. The process is not automatic; the board of commissioners has to agree to take the increase every year. Voters have to approve anything above that, he said.

Initiative 747 established restrictions for local taxing districts when it passed in 2001. Previously the cap was set at 6 percent. The current system does not account for inflation. Many fire districts experience growth that surpasses the 1 percent allowed increase.

“In 2016 emergency personnel responded to over 10,790 emergency calls, 20 percent of which were fire related,” according to a Fire District 7 news release. “Fire Chief Gary Meek says that the district has worked hard to manage costs and improve efficiencies for taxpayers. However, the demand for emergency services often outpaces the revenue received to provide it.”

Fire District 7 spokesperson Heather Chadwick said call volumes have increased 5.8 percent on average in the past six years. Guptill said those numbers were up in both districts 3 and 7, even before last year’s merger that voters passed by roughly 81 percent.

When the need for more services goes up, the costs for a fire district go up.

Voters approved the move in the last August primary election, and the two agencies were officially combined as of Oct. 1, 2016, Chadwick said. Fire District 7 has eight stations, two of which are in Monroe. Emergency responders cover 98.5 square miles, providing services to 110,000 residents in Monroe, Maltby, Clearview, Mill Creek and other surrounding communities.

Fire Lt. Justyn Shevlin said the merger has allowed for operational efficiencies and more consistent staffing at fire stations. Fire District 7 now has one fire chief, three assistant fire chiefs and two deputy chiefs that are in charge of various areas of services management.

Chadwick said because of the restructured leadership, each chief is able to focus their time managing specific tasks, looking at where more efficiencies can be created, which translates to better services for the community.

A fire district’s budget is almost entirely dependent on property taxes, Shevlin said. Chadwick said fire districts are their own agency, and do not have the ability to tax through a city government.

In 2017, Snohomish County fire districts received roughly 8 percent of the nearly $1.18 billion the county distributed in property taxes, according to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office 2017 annual report. Other cities and towns, school districts, transportation, roads and libraries also took a chunk of the change.

Assessed property values in Snohomish County peaked in 2009, then declined from 2010 through 2013, according to the annual report. The numbers have steadily crept up again since 2014, according to the report.

Snohomish County Assessor’s Office levy comptroller Chris Huyboom said various annually fluctuating factors affect what taxing districts can levy, including the assessed property values, state assessed utilities, annexations and new construction. He said the formulas that determine what will raise or erode a levy lid are complicated.

“As the levy limitation is applied to a district’s budget over the years, the rate a district is allowed to levy on taxpayers tends to drift downward from the maximum statutory levy rate,” Huyboom wrote in an email. 

This year Fire District 3’s levy lid was at roughly $1.45 per $1,000 of the assessed value of a home, and Fire District 7’s had dropped to about $1.36 per $1,000, according to the county’s annual report.

Fire District 7’s board has determined to seek out levy lifts more often. The longer the time between requests, the higher the potential is that taxpayers will be asked to fill a bigger gap, Chadwick said.

Chadwick said Fire District 7’s lid restoration requests have rarely failed, if ever. The agency has developed a strategic plan for how to use the funds if voters pass the measure this year. She said the community has been very supportive of fire services. 

Photo by Kelly Sullivan: Fire District 7 firefighter Justin Thompson checks equipment Friday, April 21, at Fire Station 31 in Monroe.


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