By Danny Stusser and Lorilyn C. Lirio
The Regional Fire Authority (RFA) planning committee will meet for the 12th time this Monday, August 8 at 5:30 pm to prepare its recommendations to Olympia and Tumwater city councils the following day.
The committee is set to vote on key aspects of the proposed RFA to be included in its recommendations. The meeting is open to the public and available via Zoom at this link. The agenda and presentation materials for the meeting are attached to this story.
Dramatically increased budgets
Documents provided by the cities indicate that costs for an RFA here would increase significantly starting in its first year of operation.
According to the consultants serving the committee, the combined fire budget for both cities in 2022 is $26,990,894 (see slide, above).
The proposed 2024 RFA budget is $39,747,889 – an increase of 47% over 2022 figures. The proposed RFA budget would continue to grow to $52,938,867 by 2030 – an additional 33% increase.
Fire Benefit Charge
The agenda does not include further clarification of the controversial “Fire Benefit Charge” (FBC) that could represent up to 60 percent of the new agency’s funding.
As previously reported in The JOLT, the FBC would be a fee (not a tax) and would be based on the anticipated fire-response needs of a structure. The amount of the FBC would not be directly based on the assessed value of the property.
As it would be a fee, not a tax, the FBC would not be subject to the collection cap that limits property tax increases in Washington to one percent per year.
For those who itemize their tax deductions, the FBC would not be tax deductible as, according to IRS regulations, it is a “service charge,” not a tax.
“The planning committee will get a ‘deep dive’ into the data and look at some models for FBC. They will look at the financing plan. They will look at property taxes and governance structure,” Tumwater Communications manager Ann Cook said of the agenda. for Monday’s meeting.
Cook said the discussion will touch on the FBC formula that would be used in charging the property owners. According to documents prepared for the meeting, the proposed formula for the FBC is:
“(Square root of square footage) times
cost per gallon [of water]times
category weight factor, times
discounts and or additional charges [such as ‘effective response factor’ or ‘hazard factor’]”
Cook noted it is the same formula used by some other RFAs in the state, but “what makes it different is weighting factors.”
Most RFAs don’t have the FBC
Nine of the 13 other regional fire authorities do not have a fire benefit charge; instead they rely on the traditional property tax and commercial inspection fees, according to the committee’s consultants, Karen Reed & Bill Cushman. (See chart, above.)
One analyst, speaking off the record, is extremely concerned about the FBC fee, saying there are factors in the formula that are unrelated to fire services, such as emergency medical services.
Most of the calls for fire and emergency services are for emergency medical services, not putting out fires. “How does that formula relate to the actual cost for emergency services?” the analyst posed to these reporters.
Olympia and Tumwater fire departments are currently structured as city departments, accountable to the city councils. Over the next six years, the proposed RFA would remove governance from the cities and place it in the hands of a new government agency, the Regional Fire Authority. The committee is planning to recommend a two-phase approach to the change:
- 2023-2025 Six city council members (three from Olympia, three from Tumwater)
- Long-term Beginning in 2026, the committee will propose a seven-member board made up mostly of elected commissioners.
What is the purpose of the RFA?
In the July 25 meeting, Olympia Councilmember Jim Cooper said the planning committee has been building a budget for the RFA, “rather than having a strategic conversation about the levels of service that we are asking for.”
Most of the materials provided by the RFA committee focus on issues such as budgets, staffing levels and costs, and even what to call an eventual RFA, rather than presenting concrete plans for faster response times, more emergency medical technicians, more fire stations, ambulance -type services or other potential improvements that might justify to the public a new ownership structure for these city fire departments.
On Tuesday, the RFA committee is set to present an update to both Olympia and the Tumwater city council. Cook said they expected that both city councils would allow them to continue the RFA planning.
On Aug. 15, the RFA committee is set to hold a Town Hall-style meeting, with additional sessions to be scheduled in the fall.
A final plan for the proposed RFA is set to be delivered to the city councils in October. If the city councils vote to move forward with it, they would send a ballot measure to voters for a decision in 2023.