In 2022 North Whatcom, FD 4 hope to become a Regional Fire Authority
WHATCOM — The fire district that serves the north county will ask for an increase of its property tax rate on the Aug. 3 ballot.
It’s been about 15 years since that last happened, and in just the last 10 years the call volume for emergency services has risen at least 52%, reflecting population growth, say leaders of Fire District 21, also known as North Whatcom Fire & Rescue.
They will seek a new rate of $1.45 per $1,000 of property value, or $580 on a $400,000 house.
At one point, voters approved a fire levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value, the maximum allowed under state law, to fund operations. The levy rate drops as property values increase. That means the rate has ebbed to where today North Whatcom collects $1.15 per $1,000 in assessed value, which the district calls “insufficient to maintain current service levels or to meet future service demands.”
This is additional detail from North Whatcom: In 2020, the agency responded to 3,679 calls for service — more than 52% above 2011 (2,405 calls). There were fewer service calls in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2019 call total was 3,983, which is a 65% call increase from 2011. “Even with careful resource management and (self-imposed) firefighter salary reductions, this increased demand is straining NWFR’s ability to maintain existing service levels.”
Fire District 4, between Smith Road and Bellingham, has a joint operations agreement with Fire District 21, and will ask for the same $1.45 rate, up from $1.03 currently. It has not asked for a levy lid lift since 1994.
The two commissioner chairs of the two districts made the announcement in a joint press release last week.
Bruce Ansell, of FD 21, and Mark Lann, of FD 4, also said they intend to sign a new inter-local agreement to keep up their cooperative service and management arrangement into 2022, after that was in uncertainty earlier this year.
“We do need financial support from our communities now, and we’re asking for the first time in 12 years,” Ansell said. “With our growing population and a 52% increase in calls for service in the last ten years, we cannot rely on our current levy rate to make ends meet.”
Both Ansell and Lann say they want to work toward merging the two districts into a Regional Fire Authority together, toward even more cost-efficiency of operations. That proposal could come to voters in 2022.
The city of Lynden, with its own fire department, is an island in the middle of Fire District 21/North Whatcom. Otherwise, the district covers Blaine and Birch Bay and extends to halfway between Lynden and Everson and from the Canadian border to Laurel.
Details on both levy proposals are on the North Whatcom website at https://www.nwfrs.net and the tabs Levy Lid Lift and WCFD4.
In February, North Whatcom initiated two public virtual Zoom meetings on the matter of “exploring whether to ask voters to approve creation of a Regional Fire Authority to serve our communities.” Fire Chief Jason Van der Veen spoke to the issues being addressed and the planning that was afoot with Fire District 4.
However, since then there has been change on the FD-4 commission. Lann has only been in office a few months following a resignation, and another one of the three commissioner positions is vacant and needs to be filled by appointment or by election this fall.
In the midst of that degree of change, it wasn’t possible to go forward with a Regional Fire Authority proposal to voters this year, but that is the intent in 2022, said Lann and Ansell.
District 21 will continue providing service to District 4 after Jan. 1, 2022, the pair said. The new agreement will be similar to the contract that has been in place for nearly ten years, but is otherwise set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021.
“The message is we’ve resolved some of our differences and we’re going to move forward,” Ansell said.
Property taxes — based on assessed value of building and land — are the primary revenue source for fire districts. Under state law, they can collect only 1% more in property tax revenues each year, plus the value of new construction. This creates a gradual decrease in revenue that is not enough to keep up with inflation and growth in population and calls for service, leaders of fire districts say.
Fire districts 1 and 16 also seeking levy lift
WHATCOM — Fire District 1 will also seek a levy lid lift on the Aug. 3 ballot, confirmed district fire chief Mel Blankers.
It will be a request to reset the rate at $1.40 per $1,000 property value, as it was set by voters in 2015, Blankers said. But the effective rate has already eroded to around $1.10 in six years, he said.
A similar situation is true for Whatcom County Fire Protection District 16 in the Acme area, which will seek a levy lid lift to $1.20, said fire chief Henry Maleng. The effective rate now has eroded to about 88 cents.
Maleng said the district will ask also for a 3% factor for five years, a provision allowed in state law. That will counter the 1% limit that exists otherwise, a result of Tim Eyman tax-cutting efforts of the past.
“It’s just to try to stay with inflation, instead of falling back every year,” Maleng said.