Advisory vote needed on fire department | Editorial

Mayor Carrie Lacher said during her campaign that one of her goals is to establish an independent funding source for streets.

Our recommendation: The Friday Harbor Town Council should place an advisory vote on the town ballot, asking town property owners if they would support Friday Harbor Fire Department becoming part of the San Juan County District 3 Fire Department.

If Friday Harbor became part of District 3, town property owners would pay the same tax levy for fire services as out-of-town residents: 42.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation (that’s $128.40 for a $300,000 home).

But the revenue that currently supports the town fire department — $447,000 in 2010 — could be transferred to street improvements and other uses.

One way of looking at it: Is a steady source of revenue for fire protection and street improvements worth $128 a year? Clearly, the benefit of improved streets, as well as other services funded by the town’s Current Fund, would improve the livability and visitor experience here.

Town officials have long grappled with this issue. Town studies have shown the savings of merging the departments would be minimal, town officials have feared losing control of local fire services, and the thought has been that town firefighters are more ready to fight urban fires than their District 3 counterparts.

But that’s changed. District 3 proposed a couple of years ago combining the departments, even calling it the Friday Harbor Fire Department — in recognition of the island’s oldest firefighting force — while guaranteeing Friday Harbor two seats on the fire district commission. Both departments train regularly together. And the financial pros and cons have changed significantly as well.

The town Fire Department is funded by the town’s Current Fund, which consists of revenue from sales taxes, property taxes, leasehold taxes and fees. The Street Department is funded by the Current Fund as well. The Fire Department’s budget for 2010 requires half the amount of sales tax revenue the town received in 2009. That leaves the other half for administration, parks, streets and general government. And as we saw this year, there’s not enough revenue to go around. Two positions vacated by retirement will go unfilled. Town employees will take nine unpaid furlough days this year. Several needed street improvements are being postponed.

One other option is to leave the town Fire Department as is and ask property owners for a property tax increase, with the money earmarked for streets. Perhaps that’s a question for an advisory ballot as well.

Of Washington towns and cities, Friday Harbor’s property tax rate is the fifth-lowest in the state. In 2009, the rate was 74.4 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. Voters could raise that amount, earmarking the money for street improvements.

The council needs more than anecdotal evidence of how the public feels about this issue. An advisory vote would provide solid evidence of where the public stands on this issue.

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