Fire district merger idea isn’t dead just yet

The lengthy effort to form a regional fire protection service authority consisting of Bremerton and South Kitsap Fire and Rescue has reached another milestone.

After several months of work, the group tasked with laying the groundwork for this consolidation issued its report and presented it to the Bremerton city council on Sept. 29.

The next step is to appoint members of a planning committee composed of representatives from the fire district and the city government.

This planning committee will have the job of drafting a plan stating how the regional authority would be operated and funded.

Assuming the governing bodies of the fire district and city find the plan to be suitable, it would then be the basis for the public to decide whether to approve formation of the regional authority.

In light of the time needed for the planning committee to finish its work and for the public to become familiar with the details, the proposition would probably be put on the ballot no earlier than the general election in November 2011.

If the measure is placed on the ballot, formation of this regional authority requires approval by a majority of the votes cast by voters within the boundaries of the proposed regional authority.

The working group’s report indicates that funding issues remain as a possible obstacle to voter approval.

Since the report says nothing about service benefit charges to provide some of the funding for a regional authority, property taxes would apparently be the main source of revenue.

As has always been the case during the years-long discussions about a regional authority, Bremerton’s relatively low tax base results in a funding gap of more than $2 million.

The regional authority would be able to levy property taxes at a rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, which isn’t a high enough rate to collect the revenue needed to match what is now spent by Bremerton’s fire department.

Consolidation would likely result in reduced spending compared to what the city and SKFR now spend separately, but the reduction may be only $415,000 to $655,000 in annual spending once consolidation is complete.

Bremerton residents would pay less to the regional authority than they now pay to the city, and SKFR residents would pay more than they now pay to the fire district.

Even with a significant tax increase for people now served by SKFR, the net effect is a shortfall that would need to be filled by an additional payment from Bremerton’s city revenues.

The working group suggests that this additional payment may not go on forever, but eliminating it apparently requires revenue for the regional authority to grow faster than total spending.

Since the regional authority’s annual levy increases after the first year would be limited to 1 percent plus the amount coming from new construction, it doesn’t seem likely that a rising tax base would close the gap.

Within Bremerton, taxpayers would continue paying property taxes to the city while beginning to pay taxes to the regional authority — resulting in more than a $2 million tax increase.

Of course, the city council could promise not to impose such a tax increase on residents, if residents ever learn of this possible effect of approving a regional authority.

For taxpayers in what is now SKFR, approving a regional authority would have essentially the same effect as approving a lid lift to the maximum tax rate for taxes due in 2013.

Since SKFR needs to ask its voters for a lid lift to take the place of the temporary lid lift that expires at the end of 2012, the effect on our taxes might be similar.

However, a lid lift for 2013 in SKFR would be to fund better SKFR services, but the increase that results from forming a regional authority would be to fill most of the gap created by Bremerton’s lower tax base.

It should be interesting to see whether either governing body can demonstrate that a regional authority is a good idea for either group of taxpayers.

Bob Meadows is a

Port Orchard resident.

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