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South King Fire, Valley Regional Fire weigh potential merge

Public records indicate the potential for a South King Fire and Rescue merge with Valley Regional Fire Authority should no longer be considered rumor.

“We probably started thinking about it several years ago,” said South King Fire and Rescue Chief Al Church in an interview. “Actually, many years ago there were talks between the Auburn fire department and District 39 before it was South King Fire and Rescue.”

But now department officials are more than just talking.

On Dec. 23, 2013, a memo was sent to all department personnel with South King Fire and Rescue and Valley Regional Fire Authority. The memo detailed a robust analysis of partnership opportunities within the entities.

It outlined goals, guiding principals, the process, the six committees that will analyze policy and governance, operations, labor, administrative operations, finances and an oversight committee to ensure it all runs smoothly.

The oversight committee is also tasked with presenting the final reports to both department’s governing boards. It is made up of Church, Valley Regional Fire Authority Administrator Eric Robertson, one to two members of both the governing board and board of fire commissioners and union representatives from both departments.

While the timeline states the committee work started in January and would be complete by July 1, Church said they’re nowhere near the deadline they anticipated and it’s “going to take much longer.”

“As we started delving into this, there’s significant differences, especially in the labor group,” Church said.

Differences in how the fire departments are funded and the fact that Valley Regional has civil services and South King Fire doesn’t are more discrepancies to analyze, he said.

The fire departments call it a partnership instead of a “merger” because “using the word ‘merger’ implies the legal mechanism, which we cannot use,” according to a Nov. 6 email by Robertson.

But defining what exactly goes into a partnership is complicated and a process the departments are still trying to figure out. Church states the partnership could be a consolidation, an annex, a merge, “flat out contracting for services” or partnering. And partnering could be “all in,” or simply partnership opportunities, such as within specific divisions - i.e. operations, training, etc. - to ultimately determine if they could find some economy of scale and improve the efficiency for tax dollars, their main goal.

Church said if the partnership happens, which he prefaces that it might not, jobs would be eliminated at an administrative level slowly as those at the top retire.

And he doesn’t anticipate more jobs at this time either.

The fire chief stressed that before a decision to place the partnership on the ballot is made, there would be significant public outreach from South King Fire. At this time, he said the potential measure wouldn’t be ready for the November election and he “highly doubts it at this point” voters would see the proposal on the special election April ballot.

“I just know there’s a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “We need time to do it right.”

However, there could be some significant changes if voters approve the partnership.

Jerry Galland, a resident of unincorporated King County and an outspoken critic of South King Fire, said the potential merge is so that South King Fire can take advantage of Valley Regional’s service benefit charge.

“[South King Fire] is a larger district,” Galland said. “… They have chosen to merge the larger district into a smaller district and the only reason for doing that is because the smaller district currently has a service benefit charge.”

South King Fire covers the larger area of Federal Way, Des Moines and part of unincorporated King County, while Valley Regional covers Algona, Auburn and Pacific.

In 2010, Galland led the campaign against the charge, or Proposition 1, stating the charge would raise property taxes because “it allows the fire district, without coming back to the voters, a charge that generates up to 60 percent of the revenue.”

The service benefit charge would have reduced the fire district’s levy from $1.50 to $1, charged to each property owner per $1,000 of assessed property value. But the charge would have added an amount each property owner would pay based on the square footage and fire risk of their property.

Taxpayers currently pay $1.79 per $1,000, which includes the excess levy that was passed about two years ago. Several smaller fire districts charge more.

Galland said the $1 per $1,000 of assessed value would rise to $2.50 with the benefit charge but voters never passed the measure.

“I’m against the service benefit charge because it’s not capped,” he said. “The whole goal of the merger is to put them into the fire benefit charge mechanism.”

Church stated this philosophy simply wasn’t true.

“We’re looking at this to see if the partnership makes sense,” Church said. “Would it be a benefit charge? Potentially. Would it be $1.50? Potentially.”

Church also said there’s a possibility “things would stay flat” with the partnership.

As for the service benefit charge, Church said it would provide a protection charge against pro rationing as funds get tight, which they have in the past.

Pro rationing is when a levy is reduced from overlapping senior taxing authorities such as the state, county, etc.

“As senior taxing authority levy rates go up, it can compress our levy rates,” he said. “We’re sitting fine right now but some fire districts have been pro rationing. That’s why a benefit charge is an option to look at as part of the analysis.”

Levy “compression” occurs when local taxing districts’ “rates” in any given area in the county exceed the limit of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed property value. There are more than 400 separate levy codes county-wide, which overlap each other and are added together to establish your individual tax bill.

After comparing the two district’s budgets, Galland also claims there would be about $4.5 million in excess and the “moment the merge occurs, the math will show.”

Church said Galland has already seemed to have crunched the numbers and could not verify if that was accurate because the committees are still a long way out in analyzing and researching the fiscal viability of it all.

“The analysis we’re doing is we’ll look at the costs,” Church said. “We’re committed we’re not going to expand the costs to our citizens beyond what would be reasonable and, quite frankly, that [$4.5 million in excess] would not be reasonable.”

Ultimately, Galland feels there needs to be very high accountability and transparency with the fire district.

“Why do I think they want the money? So they can set the taxes and revenues without being accountable to the citizens,” Galland said. “… When they want more money, I gotta question if they’re going to do what they said they would.”

But Church’s goals for this partnership are to provide just that: ample public outreach and input.

“There’s some folks that think this is a done deal but this couldn’t be any farther from the truth,” he said. “If it makes sense, we’ll talk to our citizens. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s still going to improve the way we do things.”


 

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