Regional fire authority has issues to resolve

Deciding whether to approve formation of a regional fire protection service authority to serve South Kitsap (including Port Orchard) and Bremerton requires consideration of more than the immediate steps to put the regional authority into operation.

For the indefinite future, an additional payment by Bremerton to the regional authority is the only apparent solution to the budget gap created by Bremerton’s higher costs relative to the tax revenue the regional authority would receive from levying on property within Bremerton.

Unless the budget gap can be eliminated, the additional payment would have to continue forever.

Suppose it never goes away, and the regional authority needs to go to the voters in the future for a property tax lid lift.

The limit on annual increases in the regional authority’s levy makes it inevitable that there will be future lid lift propositions. Without voter approval the levy amount can only increase by 1 percent plus new construction each year.

If the additional revenue collected within Bremerton because of a voter-approved lid lift merely reduces the city’s payment to the regional authority, the city’s voters would perhaps be less inclined to approve the higher tax.

They might agree that a lid lift is needed to maintain the same level of service, but using any part of the additional revenue to reduce the city’s payment would make it unlikely that a lid lift would provide noticeably better service.

In South Kitsap, voters might have a different opinion about the benefit to be gained from a lid lift, if they see it as necessary to make desired improvements in services they receive.

Assuming the plan approved by voters at the time they approve forming the regional authority prevents South Kitsap’s taxes from paying Bremerton’s costs, a lid lift could be used to do more than simply maintain their level of services.

The two groups of voters would be voting as one group on the ballot measure even though they have different expectations about the benefit from paying higher taxes to the regional authority.

Unless there is a way around this potential effect of the need for an additional payment from the city to the regional authority, a lid lift wouldn’t necessarily be a viable way to reduce the budget gap.

Reducing the budget gap by cutting costs until the gap disappears presents its own potential problem.

If virtually all cost reductions go toward reducing Bremerton’s additional payment, then residents of South Kitsap might never see any significant improvement in their services resulting from consolidation.

It does South Kitsap residents little good when what was once their separate fire district organization begins performing tasks in support of Bremerton and thereby reduces Bremerton’s payment.

Consolidating the two entities — the city fire department and the South Kitsap fire district — ought to result in some cost reductions because of economies of scale, if nothing else.

But if greater efficiency can result from consolidation, and if the savings merely reduce Bremerton’s additional payment to the regional authority, then there is no clear benefit to South Kitsap residents.

One result of forming a regional authority doesn’t appear to offer the prospect of cost reductions — the need to pay for continued existence of the South Kitsap fire district and its commissioners while also paying for a separate governing board for the regional authority.

Once all the regional authority’s governing board members are elected (by November 2017 under the draft plan), voters might eliminate this added cost by dissolving the South Kitsap fire district.

But once they do so, there is no practical way for residents in unincorporated South Kitsap to withdraw from a “bad marriage,” if it later becomes obvious that the regional authority doesn’t serve them well.

Either city could withdraw from the regional authority, but there would be no government entity to act for the unincorporated areas in withdrawing.

If keeping their options open over the long term is important, voters in South Kitsap may have to accept the cost of operating two different governing entities — the fire district and the regional authority.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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