By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published October 13, 2021
Snohomish Regional Fire district’s Prop. 1 seeks levy bump
Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue hopes the third time’s the charm for bumping up its levy rate.
It is asking voters to reset the levy rate to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value for one year. On the ballot, it’s Fire Proposition No. 1. In 2019, voters rejected a similar measure twice.
Ballots begin arriving in mailboxes this week.
The district is asking to put the levy back to $1.50 because it says call volumes are up 10% compared to 2020, and expenses are inflating beyond the pace of its revenues.
The district’s levy rate was $1.27 per $1,000 this year.
A sample $400,000 house today, at $1.27 per $1,000, paid $508 in property tax this year to the fire district. If it was at $1.50, this would be $600.
The regional fire district protects 175,000 residents living in Monroe, Lake Stevens, Mill Creek, Maltby and Clearview. Not in its territory is the immediate Snohomish area in between Lake Stevens and Clearview, which is protected by Snohomish Fire District No. 4.
The cost of inflation, coupled with the 2019 levy failures, threw a hurdle for the fire district’s financial models.
The district cut $1.5 million in programs and services to balance its budget this year. These cuts halted its Community Resource Paramedic program, which is a public health program for residents who frequently risk having medical emergencies; lessened firefighter training and deferred apparatus replacement.
If the levy passes, the money would maintain staffing levels, restore firefighter training and go toward some fire station improvements and vehicle replacements. The district would also use the money to restore some form of a community paramedic program in 2022, Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said by email.
If it fails, the district will have to continue cutting, O’Brien said.
“The next step would be to begin reducing public outreach, fire prevention, maintenance, training, and specialized emergency response programs,” O’Brien said by email. “We also would use money set aside for stations and apparatus to fund daily operations. Finally, staffing levels would be reduced, which would result in service level cuts and longer response times.”
The district will host three educational meetings about the levy. Two are online at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19 and 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. The district will post details on its website, www.srfr.org
The other public meeting is an in-person session at noon Thursday, Oct. 21 with Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien at the district’s headquarters, 163 Village Court, Monroe. You can bring a lunch.
The district spreads its services evenly, and would spend the levy dollars equitably, O’Brien said.
“SRFR is broken into three battalions: East (Monroe area), West (Clearview area), and North (Lake Stevens area) each battalion has similar staffing and response times,” O’Brien said by email. “The District intends to maintain this equity.”
This spring, the district polled nearly 600 voters to gauge whether to ask for a levy renewal. Nearly 8 out of 10 survey respondents said yes. Sensitivity to general property tax increases was a big part of why the levies failed in 2019, the survey found.
According to a summertime fire board presentation on strategies to passing the levy, Lake Stevens residents recommended the district tell people what benefits there are from the levy while Monroe residents said the district will need to describe and defend how it will spend money through levy dollars.
Longstanding Fire District 7 voters, before the district merged with Monroe Fire and Lake Stevens Fire, had the most hesitation to a levy, the survey found.
The survey also found most people are satisfied with the fire service, but do not have much interaction with the fire district.
The levy rate erodes over time, and is not tied to inflation. It erodes because the rate is calculated by adding up a value for what all the properties in the district are worth, and then collecting taxes on that figure. The levy lid lift measure asks the value figure to be reset and the rate to return back to $1.50.
Voters in the district last reset the levy to $1.50 in 2017.
A fire levy measure requires a simple 50% or better voter approval to pass.
In August 2019, predecessor Fire District 7 asked for a levy measure that achieved 42% approval. A followup measure in November 2019 missed out with 49% approval.
Voters in August 2019 overwhelmingly agreed to merge what was then Fire District 7 and Lake Stevens Fire to create today’s Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue.
Why no fire benefit charge?
The spring voter survey found people interested in funding models that do not increase property taxes.
The district investigated whether to ask voters to instead create a fire benefit charge, which is a fee charged to property owners proportionally based on square footage and fire risk of a building.
When a district has a fire benefit charge, it rebalances the picture on tax revenues and can reduce the amount taxed on residential homeowners.
The district decided to go for a levy instead after finding a fire benefit charge wouldn’t be effective.
“A fire benefit charge requires enough commercial development to make it sustainable,” O’Brien said by email. “Our fire district is predominantly residential and the District decided to continue with the levy funding system at this time. We will continue to monitor the viability of a fire benefit
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