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Everett Fire thinking about shift to regional fire authority

EVERETT — The city is exploring making its fire department an independent taxing authority, which would largely split it off from the city’s ailing budget.
Mayor Cassie Franklin has contacted neighboring jurisdictions about partnering with Everett Fire to create a regional fire authority (RFA), which would levy and collect property taxes for fire and emergency medical services.
Fire Chief Dave DeMarco will address the Mukilteo City Council on June 29 to discuss this idea.
A committee of Franklin and Everett City Council members Brenda Stonecipher and Scott Bader has met once so far to discuss fire service options, and is slated to meet again in July.
“We envision a three-year timeline to form an RFA,” Franklin told the council at a Feb. 26 briefing. “We assumed it’s complex, and that it would take some time.”
State law gives Everett two options regarding an RFA.
It could join an established fire authority nearby — Marysville or South County — or form a new RFA with either or all of the Mukilteo, Snohomish County Airport and Port of Everett fire departments.
Voters in each jurisdiction would have to approve either choice, since both shift fire funding from the city to a new taxing body.
Regional fire authorities are governed by a board of elected officials, city council members, or a combination of the two.
How switching to an RFA will affect property taxes depends if the city lowers its regular levy rate to compensate for the loss of fire revenue.
“Most but not all of the cities that have joined an RFA have initially reduced their regular levies by the same amount,” DeMarco told the council.
If Everett chooses to do that, there would be no increase for taxpayers, but the city’s budget deficit would increase by $7.5 million.
If the fire district joins an RFA and the city does not reduce its levy rate, property taxes for median homeowners would increase $584 a year and the city’s budget deficit would decrease by $22.6 million.
At a break-even point, the city would lower its levy rate by $1.13, which wouldn’t reduce the city budget deficit but would add $144 in property taxes for the median property owner.
Regional fire authorities may collect up to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value each year to provide fire service for properties within their boundaries.
If the Fire Department levied that $1.50 rate this year, it would have generated an estimated $7.5 million surplus for the department, according to a city analysis.
In addition to fire-service taxes, property owners pay a uniform, 50 cents-per $1,000 EMS tax.
Regional fire authorities can levy either the EMS tax or use a “fire benefit charge” of up to 60 percent of the cost of fire services.
Fire benefit charges are calculated using a complex formula that analyzes a property’s type, size, number of calls for service, and the risk it poses to first responders.
The fire benefit charge model shifts costs “more heavily toward customers that demand that service,” DeMarco told the council in a Feb. 26 presentation.
For the average single family home an fire benefit charge would be net neutral or possibly a tax decrease, DeMarco said.
A regional fire authority needs 50 percent voter approval to form, and require voter re-approval every six years. Replacing the EMT tax with a fire benefit charge requires supermajority voter approval of 60 percent-plus.
“There are very few city fire departments left,” DeMarco told the council at the February retreat.

  

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