Regional fire service plan fatally flawed

The draft plan for the formation of a regional fire protection service authority serving Bremerton and South Kitsap fails to provide a viable plan for the financing and operation of the regional authority.

Determining how the regional authority would get the necessary funds to operate has always been a tough problem to solve, because Bremerton spends far more on its fire department than the regional authority could collect in taxes.

Instead of solving this problem, the planning committee proposes to “kick the can down the road.”

The funding shortfall caused by Bremerton’s situation is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.4 million a year at the beginning — which is more than 10 percent of the regional authority’s needed funding.

There is no foreseeable way that the funding gap will disappear, since no one expects Bremerton’s costs to go down or tax base to go up enough to eliminate it.

Unless the city pays from its own revenues to fill the funding gap, the regional authority cannot begin to operate.

The planning committee proposes to end the city’s obligation after five years, which simply postpones the point at which operations are impractical.

Making matters worse, the committee proposes to put the city’s temporary obligation to make these payments in a separate agreement — not in the plan voters would be asked to approve.

This agreement would supposedly be between the city and the regional authority, but the regional authority cannot exist before voters approve, so there can be no such agreement before the election.

The draft plan doesn’t even contain the required statement of what taxes the regional authority could impose if voters approve its formation.

The plan that voters approve must state what taxes or other revenue sources the regional authority is authorized by the voters to collect.

And, unless the plan states the method by which the first levy and subsequent levies will be calculated, taxpayers in South Kitsap will be vulnerable to a tax increase to pay part of Bremerton’s costs.

With these flaws — the absence of a financing plan beyond five years and the omission of the required statement about the regional authority’s taxing power — the draft plan should not be approved by the fire district commissioners or South Kitsap voters.

Adding to the problem caused by the flawed financing plan is the absence of plainly stated service levels that the regional authority would be obligated to maintain if funding is available to do so.

A section of the draft plan filled with numbers representing response times, but with no explanation of what these figures represent isn’t sufficient.

Are these average response times from the recent past, or are they the times within which responses to 90 percent of calls occurred?

It doesn’t say.

Assuming voters can be told in plain words what levels of service would be maintained, the funding problem can be put into perspective.

Which would be the higher priority — reducing the city’s payment or maintaining service levels?  The committee seems to think that reducing the city’s payment is the higher priority.

About one-third of the funds needed to maintain Bremerton’s level of service would have to come from the city’s payment to the regional authority.

What would the regional authority’s governing board do at the end of five years, if the city refused to renew its obligation to make payments?

Cutting services to Bremerton by one-third is proposed in the separate agreement as an option the board could choose if the city defaults in the first five years — if such action is allowed by law.

Does anyone know whether such a drastic cut in services to one area within its jurisdiction could be made — even if the plan rather than a separate agreement said so?

How would such a cut be accomplished within the terms of whatever collective bargaining agreements exist?

All fire department and fire district employees would become employees of the regional authority, so how would such a cut affect the employees?

The effect on city residents — and South Kitsap residents, if cuts cannot be limited to the city’s services — would be easy to imagine.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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