CKFR offers a lesson for our fire district

People living within the South Kitsap Fire and Rescue district have an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, now that the Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue commissioners are thinking about seeking voter approval of fire service benefit charges.

The two fire districts are not in the same situation regarding their property tax revenue limits, but questions that need answers before voters make their decision are similar.

Essentially, voters need to understand how the benefit charges would change the limits on what they pay each year to the fire district.

SKFR commissioners may make different decisions about actual taxes and charges within those limits compared to CKFR commissioners, but knowing the limits at least tells you what is possible.

For example, SKFR obtained voter approval for a property tax “lid lift” in 2006 to provide funding to staff an additional station — and they haven’t used all the levy authority given by voters.

So far, they have used only what they needed.

CKFR also obtained approval of a lid lift in 2006 that was a much bigger tax increase, and they have used all the levy authority given by their voters.

It seems obvious that SKFR commissioners restrained any urge they may have felt to take all they could get from the lid lift.

When assessed values rose more than anticipated, a windfall increase was theirs for the taking.

Even if voter-approved benefit charges allow fire district commissioners to take a lot more from the district’s residents, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will.

Since the two districts are in different situations now, it isn’t likely that SKFR would propose benefit charges in the immediate future.

We have time to begin understanding how these charges work.

CKFR’s bigger lid lift put them closer to their maximum property tax rate, so the recession’s effect on their total assessed property valuation has put them much closer to the maximum tax rate.

Another year of similar declines in property values would cause the CKFR tax rate to rise from its current $1.42 per $1,000 to the maximum $1.50, thereby limiting their annual increase to less than the “1 percent plus new construction” that we’re familiar with.

SKFR’s tax rate also rose because of declining property values, but only to $1.16 per $1,000.

They are much farther away from their maximum tax rate, and thus farther from hitting the limit on annual revenue increases.

If SKFR annexed the city of Bremerton, as may be proposed in the near future, benefit charges in the newly enlarged fire district may be considered as a way to offset the deficit caused by Bremerton’s lower property values.

One way or the other, benefit charges may eventually be proposed in South Kitsap, if property taxes alone cannot provide sufficient revenue.

Meanwhile, CKFR may be seeking their voters’ approval, and then implementing the new revenue process if voters approve. We can see what they say, and perhaps what they do.

In a nutshell, benefit charges can amount to 60 percent of a fire district’s operating budget, and the maximum property tax rate is reduced from $1.50 to $1.

The district gives up about a third of its levy authority (not counting the separate emergency medical services levy) in return for benefit charges that can total more than what was given up.

And, since the district’s levy lid remains at the highest prior levy amount, annual property tax increases can go up with rising assessed values by more than 1 percent plus new construction until the levy lid is again reached.

The new revenue system would make it possible to increase total revenue from district residents more than the current property tax limits allow.

Since benefit charges can be based on something other than assessed value, the effect on taxpayers would depend on the criteria used to calculate each individual’s charge.

Seeing how CKFR works through this process may give us an idea of the impact on individuals — a key issue when individuals decide how to mark their ballots.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.