Regional fire service plan requires scrutiny

Soon, voters in South Kitsap must turn their attention to the idea of forming a Regional Fire Protection Service Authority to serve Bremerton and the South Kitsap Fire and Rescue fire protection district.

The issue won’t be on the ballot before November, but any plan that will be submitted to the voters this year must be adopted in the near future.

Waiting to comment until the plan is already developed and adopted by the planning committee consisting of representatives from Bremerton and SKFR would effectively eliminate any chance for influencing the plan’s terms.

Once the committee adopts the plan and the issue is placed on the ballot by the city council and fire protection district commissioners, residents can only vote to approve or reject it.
They cannot dicker about its terms.

While many aspects of the plan may be complicated and difficult to fashion, one in particular should receive residents’ attention.

Forming an RFPSA to serve Bremerton and South Kitsap, including Port Orchard which is already annexed into the fire protection district, presents a difficult financing problem.

The RFPSA would have only the property tax as a source of tax revenue.

Bremerton currently spends more for its urban level of services than could be collected by the RFPSA’s property tax levies on taxable property in the city.

Since Bremerton can levy property taxes at a higher tax rate than the RFPSA, and can turn to other sources of tax revenue, such as the sales tax and its taxes on utilities, the city can spend more.

Continuing to spend more for services provided to Bremerton would force the RFPSA to take funding away from South Kitsap or require Bremerton to supplement its revenues by transferring funds to the RFPSA.

Solving this financing problem without taking funding and services away from South Kitsap requires a way to limit the RFPSA levy, calculate the additional funding Bremerton must provide, and enforce Bremerton’s obligation.

If the RFPSA levies are higher than the levies SKFR would have imposed, the funding gap could be partly closed by making South Kitsap taxpayers pay some of the cost of Bremerton’s services.

One way to avoid this shift of the tax burden to South Kitsap would be to put a levy limit in the plan that keeps the RFPSA from imposing a higher levy.

Since the first regular levy imposed by the RFPSA would be for taxes payable in 2013, no one can know by this November what the assessed values and levy amount would be.
Projecting what the SKFR levy for 2012 or 2013 would be based on estimated assessed values involves guesswork, so using a projection of SKFR’s levy to limit the first RFPSA levy would be an uncertain way to avoid making South Kitsap residents pay Bremerton’s costs.

Having a plan that requires calculating what would be the SKFR levy amount and rate if the amount were simply increased for 2013 by 1 percent plus the amounts generated by new construction, then applying the resulting tax rate to Bremerton would avoid guesswork in figuring the total RFPSA levy amount.

The RFPSA levy amount wouldn’t be known before this November’s election, but when it is calculated late in 2012 it would not impose a tax increase on South Kitsap to pay for Bremerton’s services.

Unless the SKFR commissioners use their banked levy capacity to increase the levy for 2012 to its allowable maximum and thereby reduce Bremerton’s payment obligation in the following year, this method would protect South Kitsap taxpayers.

Calculating Bremerton’s payment obligation in all future years seems possible only if the RFPSA identifies the costs for Bremerton services in every year so that the funding gap can be seen.
Enforcing Bremerton’s payment obligation would require some method that protects South Kitsap by reducing Bremerton’s services to close any gap caused by a failure to pay.

Whatever the planning committee comes up with as methods to calculate and enforce Bremerton’s payment obligation will deserve scrutiny by South Kitsap residents before the plan is adopted.

The plan that is adopted by the planning committee has to protect the interests of South Kitsap residents.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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