Commissioners for Cowlitz County Fire District 6 spent their last regular meeting discussing the ins and outs of proposing a property tax increase intended to help the district avoid a potential financial collapse.
Based in Castle Rock, officials with District 6 had chosen during their July 28 meeting to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to consider increasing the current rate from $0.44 per $1,000 of assessed value to $1 per $1,000 in the hopes of generating enough yearly income to fund more than the bare minimum of expenses.
(This newspaper had previously referred to the proposed tax as an EMS levy, but has learned the proper term would be a levy lid lift, which is not so specific in how such funding can be spent as an EMS levy, and also would be a long-term increase until such time as voters are asked to amend it.)
Interim Chief Kurt Stich had said, without an increase in income, the struggling district would face a real likelihood of shutting down if they had to absorb an unforeseen financial challenge and, during the commission's Aug. 11 meeting, he brought in Washington Fire Commissioners Association Executive Secretary Roger Ferris to help explain both the importance of a levy lid lift and the district's role in presenting it to voters.
"Fire districts utilize the lid lift more than anybody else," said Ferris. "Fire districts are also the most successful at doing it."
He explained, as special purpose districts, fire districts provide specific and essential services to communities who, even in hard financial times, are often keen to support them, even if through higher tax rates. He also explained the process for approval of a levy lid lift is not so strict as passing an EMS levy or bond measure, as it requires just a simple majority of voter approval, and there are no requirements for what percentage of registered voters participate.
"Only the people who vote count toward the majority," he said, as opposed to other tax increases requiring 40 percent of those who voted in the previous General Election to participate in voting for the increase.
Ferris also explained, though those working for the district may feel strongly in support of the levy, it would not be legal to encourage voter approval using district resources, such as hanging signs on fire engines or posting "Vote yes" signs at the fire hall.
"You cannot support or oppose any ballot measures using any public facilities or public monies of any sort," he said.
Ferris suggested, instead, the district should focus on educating and reaching out to voters, and not encourage them one way or another but to inform them what the results would be of passing or not passing the levy. Stich said officials were prepared for such measures and Ferris encouraged them to begin by reaching out to local businesses and community groups as a way of informing those central to the community of the district's intentions.
Stich had previously stated, if passed, the levy would potentially increase the district's annual budget from around $600,000 to $900,000 and allow for specialized training, additional personnel, new vehicles and equipment, and possibly a fulltime chief.
Stich himself is nearing the end of his three-month agreement to act as interim chief and will return to working fulltime for Cowlitz County Fire District 2, in the Longview/Kelso area, in the next week or so. He said, after his departure, plans are not yet in place for fulltime leadership of District 6 and volunteer officers may be left in charge indefinitely.
District 6 has been without a fulltime chief since former chief Eric Koreis resigned in May to work for the Longview Fire Department as a battalion chief. Some District 6 officials have accused Koreis of contributing to their crisis by having exploited financial reserves through purchasing unnecessary vehicles and allowing himself a paramedic's pay on top of his salary as chief.