Fire district lumps years of taxes into one big one

Published on Thu, Dec 12, 2002 by Christian Knight

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Fire district lumps years of taxes into one big one

By Christian Knight

Regardless of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 747, which restricts municipal agencies from increasing their levies by more than one percent without asking voters’ permission, fire district 13 will be increasing its levy by 18.9 percent for 2003.

In dollars, the fire district is asking for $1,032,000 from its Birch Bay, Custer and Haney taxpayers, up from $869,134 in 2001.

“People are going to say ‘wow, that’s a big increase’,” said district 13 financial manager Kent McClelland. “But they’ve been getting a good deal for a long time.”

McClelland said fire district 13 commissioners opted to not take its percentage increase allowed under the law for years, even before voters passed I-747 when the maximum levy increase was six percent. “Over the last three years, district 13 hasn’t taken an increase because they don’t want to raise taxes,” McClelland said. “Now we’re in a situation where we need to.”

“We hadn’t raised taxes in seven years,” said fire district 13 commissioner Bill Salter. “We dropped the tax rate three years ago.”

But how does the fire district side-step I-747 and with it, voters’ consent? McClelland said that municipalities could “bank” whatever levy increases they did not take in years past and store them for future demands. “The fire department made some big expenditures this year and they had to pay for them,” McClelland said.

During the 2002 fiscal year fire district 13 spent nearly $514,000 on land for its new fire station in Blaine, medical insurance for its payrolled staff and to replace air tanks.

“We get the majority of our taxes from district 13,” Salter said. “This year we simply had to do it (raise taxes).”

Blaine residents, however, avoided increased rates for fire and emergency protection for 2003, despite district 13’s own desire to increase the rate from $1.27 per $1,000 worth of property value to $1.36 per $1,000 worth of property value, the rate district 13 taxpayers will be paying for 2003. “We still want to (raise the rate) next year,” McClelland said.
Salter said tough financial times at the city of Blaine influenced the district’s decision to not increase the rate to the city of Blaine. “I talked to Gary and we’re going to waive it because they financially can’t do it,” Salter said.

According to McClelland’s explanation, rates will remain the same for Blaine this year because the fire district did not turn in its budget to the Whatcom County assessor and to the city of Blaine by the November 15 deadline. Fire district 13 sends the city of Blaine a bill for its fire and emergency protection services twice a year – as opposed to collecting money through a levy as it does in the district. As a result of this agreement between the two agencies, the city of Blaine’s budget adjusts according to the bill it receives from fire district 13. In order for the city of Blaine to adjust its budget, fire district 13 – or any other agency that gives the city of Blaine a bill – would have to turn in its own budget before November 15, when all municipalities’ budgets are due.

Fire district 13’s homework was simply late. “Because of unusual circumstances, our budget is running way behind,” McClelland said. “Unusual circumstances” like Mike Campbell’s unpaid administrative leave status have especially affected the budget, he said, because one of Campbell’s paramount duties was the budget.

The status of the budget doesn’t throw the fire district into any immediate bureaucratic peril, however. “I always have a number of districts that call in late,” said Whatcom County assessor Keith Willnauer. “They wouldn’t be in trouble with me.”

McClelland said the fire district can’t turn in its final budget to the Whatcom County assessor until it gives NWFRS its levy amount and assessed valuation for district 13, which won’t happen until the first week in January. “We don’t know exactly what we will have coming in until after the first of the year,” Salter said..

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