South County Fire seeks voter approval of benefit charge for emergency services

South County Fire Chief Thad Hovis explains the proposed benefit charge appearing on the Nov. 3 general election ballot in a video posted on YouTube.

South County Fire is asking voters in Lynnwood and unincorporated Snohomish County to consider approving a benefit charge that would change the way property owners pay for emergency services.

The measure – sponsored by the Regional Fire Authority (RFA) — will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot, which is being mailed out to voters this week.

If approved, the benefit charge would replace a portion of the fire levy now paid by the RFA’s residential and commercial customers with a charge based on the size and use of a structure instead of its assessed value. Voters in the city limits of Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace and Brier would not be impacted by the charge as those cities receive emergency services through a contract with South County Fire.

The idea of a benefit charge was floated prior to 2017, when voters approved a measure consolidating Fire District 1 and the Lynnwood Fire Department to form South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue (SSCFR) – otherwise known as the Regional Fire Authority or South County Fire.

While the benefit charge concept didn’t gain traction earlier, newly-appointed South County Fire Chief Thad Hovis said he and other RFA leaders have been committed to bringing the discussion back to the table.

“This has been something I believe, our elected (fire) commission believes in and our organization believes in,” he said. ”With the growing community here in southwest Snohomish County (and) everything happening now with Sound Transit, we’re coming to ask the voters if they think it’s important as well.”

Currently, fire authority voters pay $1.28 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation for fire services. Under the benefit charge, the levy would decrease to $1 per $1,000. Using this model, Hovis said 96% of homeowners could expect to pay less or the same amount in 2021 compared to the traditional model. The charge would expire after six years unless reapproved by voters.

More than two dozen Washington state fire agencies — including the neighboring areas of Shoreline, Woodinville and Renton — use a benefit charge. According to Hovis, the model is a fairer way to pay for emergency services because smaller structures — like single-family homes — would be charged less than larger properties.

“This is my community, and sustainable funding and ensuring we have the means to respond to the community when they need us is paramount,” he said.

For example, a homeowner in an unincorporated neighborhood north of Lynnwood with a 2,526-square-foot home assessed at $462,300 paid $591.74 for fire services in 2020. Under the proposed benefit charge model, the homeowner would have paid $546.10.

A benefit charge calculator is available on the South County Fire website, where homeowners can compare what they paid this year to what would have paid with a benefit charge.

Additionally, Hovis said seniors, people with disabilities and low-income households would be able to maintain any discounts or exceptions they receive through the county. A discount for fire alarms and sprinkler systems would also be available.

However, the charge would mean some property owners would pay more than they do now. Hovis said larger residential properties and commercial buildings would pay a higher rate because larger structures pose more of a risk and require more resources during emergencies.

“A very large structure — if there is a fire — requires many more fire engines and ladder trucks and people to respond to extinguish or contain the fire than, for example, a house,” he said.

The reduced levy rate would result in a $1.3 million revenue decrease for the RFA, but Hovis said the agency would recoup those funds through transportation fees and government reimbursements for services to patients covered by federal health care plans like Medicare and Medicaid.

“Those revenues exceeded our expectations, so we’ll be able to make up the $1.3 million revenue decrease with that increased revenue,” he said.

Hovis said there has been no pushback from the community about the proposed charge. When reaching out to neighboring agencies, he said none that use a benefit charge had received criticism about it either.

“In the pandemic environment of COVID-19, it has become more and more apparent to the public how important it is that we all work together and how essential all of our services are,” he said.

Prior to the vote, South County Fire will hold two virtual public meetings this month to provide information about the benefit charge and allow residents to ask questions. The first meeting will be Thursday, Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. and the second on Thursday, Oct. 22 at 7 a.m. Participants can access the meeting by telephone or internet. Instructions, call-in numbers and links are posted on the South County Fire website.

South County Fire also posted a video to explain the proposed benefit charge.

–By Cody Sexton

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