Fire District fights for funding

Kitsap County officials are currently in the process of finding creative ways to cut their budget without cutting programs. But some of the solutions proposed are turning out to be less than popular among smaller taxing districts.

At a meeting held Sept. 6, the county announced its plan to start charging fire districts for payroll and accounting services previously done free of charge. This meant South Kitsap’s Fire District 7, which is already facing its own budget shortfalls, would face an estimated $18,000 bill from the county in 2003.

“What it amounts to is we’re taking tax money from citizens, taking it out of this budget and putting it (the county’s) budget,” said Fire Chief Mike Brown.

According to district officials, the district’s relationship with the county has always been a cooperative one. Because the county is tax-exempt, the district collects no property taxes from county facilities such as the courthouse.

Nevertheless, the district responds to those properties as it would to other, tax-paying residents in its coverage area.

In 2001, the last year for which county records are available, Fire District 7 personnel responded to 203 emergency calls in county-owned facilities. Out of seven recognized county facilities, the courthouse complex topped the list for emergency calls — the fire district was called there 88 times last year.

Of those 88 calls, 76 were medical emergencies.

“We are unique to the other taxing districts because the county seat is in our district,” Brown said.

To contest the county’s decision to start charging for services rendered, district officials compiled a list of the county-owned properties under their jurisdiction and their approximate values. Because the county does not pay property taxes and therefore is not regularly assessed, the district used the insured value of the facilities — a substitution permitted under a sub-section of the Revised Code of Washing-ton.

Including the new jail, which is still under construction, and excluding county park lands, the district estimated the county properties are worth a total $70 million.

“Using our levy rate, that would mean over $100,000 a year they would pay (to the district) in property taxes if they were private citizens,” Brown said.

The district plans to use this number in discussions with the county to emphasize the benefits of keeping their relationship cooperative, rather than fee-based.

Most of the district’s commissioners felt this was the best way to handle what many felt was a potentially difficult situation.

“I don’t think it was the taxpayers intention to start that sort of business inter-agency to keep functioning,” said commission president Rick Metzger, speaking in favor of negotiating a return to a cooperative arrangement. “Let’s rethink this, with the hope cooler heads will prevail.”

County Administrator Malcolm Fleming was not at the meeting where the new changes were introduced. However, having talked with Brown about the district’s concerns, he believes the county and the district will be able to work something out. However, he believes the county may be “legally obligated” to levy some type of fee for bookkeeping services and plans to look into it further.

“We’re going to be working on something that works to the best interest of both the fire district and the county — and the taxpayers,” Fleming said.

Fleming does not believe the agreement worked out with Fire District 7 will necessarily apply to the other fire districts in the county, however. He agrees with the district’s assessment that it is “unique” in the percentage of county facilities it covers.

“I think we will handle (other districts) on a case-by-case basis,” Fleming said.

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