Opinion

Fire district ballot measure faces long odds

Preliminary election results for Bainbridge Island’s proposal to increase property taxes earmarked for their fire department operations probably caused some people in South Kitsap’s Fire District 7 to shudder.

If the “deep pockets” of Bainbridge Island residents have turned out not to be bottomless, what hope is there for obtaining approval of any similar proposal by the voters of South Kitsap?

The answer is simple: There is little or no chance that a similar proposal would be approved by a majority of the voters who reside within Fire District 7.

When voters approved Initiative 747, many of them apparently intended to slow the rate of increase in their property taxes, not just postpone those increases for a year or two.

While the commissioners of Fire District 7 are considering how much of a tax increase to propose to the voters, they would do well to keep in mind that they must answer two questions for themselves before putting any proposition on the ballot.

Those questions are: What is necessary, and what will it cost?

It will help if the commissioners show that they know which end of the horse should be closer to the cart when it’s hitched up.

If they pick a number to put on the ballot and then search for a way to explain that number to the voters, they will have demonstrated a total misunderstanding of their responsibilities as commissioners.

We elected them to make the initial judgment about the necessary level and cost of fire protection service, not simply to seek the maximum regular property tax levy allowed by law.

Done correctly, their own process of assessing the district’s requirements, estimating the cost to meet those needs, and projecting the revenue available from all sources absent a voter-approved “levy lid lift” will provide all the justification and explanation needed by the voters.

Of course, that process must be recorded using that most useful tool of civilization — the written word. Then, there will be something for people to examine to reassure themselves that the proposal actually has been properly evaluated by their elected representatives.

The commissioners must also keep in mind that the constitutional limit placed on the regular property tax levy in 1972 is a limit meant to be at least sufficient in all but extraordinary circumstances.

The tax rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of property valuation is the fire district’s statutory share of that maximum regular levy, not the minimum it is somehow entitled to receive from taxpayers.

When the voters approved Initiative 747, they imposed another limit on the regular levy — one that restricts the commissioners’ authority to impose tax increases without the approval of a majority of the voters.

For those of us who understand the impact of that initiative, it would help if the commissioners and their spokesmen refrained from misstating its effect.

It didn’t restrict the fire district’s property tax revenue increases to 1 percent per year, and saying that it did creates a credibility gap.

The fire district’s regular property tax levy for 2004 increased by 3.27 percent compared to the tax levied in 2003.

Shall we all gather at the nearest fire stations and demand a refund of the increase which exceeded 1 percent? Or can we count on the commissioners and their spokesmen to stop the nonsense and begin explaining why an annual revenue increase greater than 3 percent wasn’t enough?

Most of us can do the arithmetic, so we understand that increasing the tax rate to the maximum of $1.50 per $1,000 of property valuation would increase the fire district’s property tax revenue by more than 10 percent.

If there are good reasons to believe that such an increase is needed, then so be it.

But first, the commissioners must require that such an increase be justified before adopting a resolution putting a proposal on the ballot for the voters’ approval.

It won’t be enough to assert that the resulting increase is “only” a certain number of dollars per average household. Every dollar unnecessarily spent on fire protection is a dollar we taxpayers won’t have available to spend on other necessities — like schools, law enforcement, food, clothing, housing, medical care, transportation, etc.

Increases in the costs of all those necessities are ordinarily “only” a few dollars more, but for some people those few dollars make a big difference.

Even for those of us who aren’t forced to make dire choices by a tax increase of “only” a few dollars more, it is still important to ensure that each dollar spent on necessities is actually required.

Before coming to the voters for more, the fire district commissioners must be ready to demonstrate that the proposed increase is required.

Most of us are ready, willing and able to pay what is required, but not a dollar more.

As the voters on Bainbridge Island may have demonstrated this past week and the voters of South Kitsap demonstrated twice in 2002, an unjustified tax increase proposal can be rejected — even when only a simple majority is required for approval.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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