Are you ready to pay 47% more for fire and EMS in 2024 than you did in 2022?

Proposed Regional Fire Authority might go to a vote this Monday; committee is planning presentations to city councils of both Olympia and Tumwater on Tuesday

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The Regional Fire Authority (RFA) planning committee will meet for the 12th time this Monday, August 8 at 5:30 p.m. 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 collections 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
18, 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 don’t 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.

Governance plan

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 councilmembers (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. 

What's next?

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.

Comments

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  • Kruz81

    This sounds like another "tax" no matter what you call it. I understamd adding funding but at some point we have too many added funding and cannot pay it. 47% increase is an insane amount to add in such a short time and the council's should really assess why.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • SandiToeze

    This paragraph really bothers me. Sounds like money and a new name are top of the list of importance and not the actual workings of staff and service to the communities involved. Isn't that backwards? Maybe even self-serving?

    "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. "

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • C K

    Call it whatever you want but any time any level of government demands money from citizens, it's still more extortion. It's still taking more money from families. Making it more and more difficult for people to own their homes and property. We should be holding these power-hungry politicians accountable for how they're already wasting our tax dollars while they demand more. Increasing or adding any fees, taxes, service charges, forcing citizens to pay more to government is shameful and a disgrace. Reduce government; restore freedom.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • Dibromin

    This feels sleazy...just like the "capital gains" INCOME tax that Inslee tried to invoke. Fortunately, the courts shut that down. I'm hoping the same thing happens here. This is a TAX, not a fee. Our taxes pay for these services...TAXES. The government is loose with it's "fee vs tax" mentality. We need to vote these people OUT.

    In the first article about this, the "committee" referenced a $2,000 tax on a $600,000 house and how this new "fee" would be inconsequential. A $600,000 house in Thurston has a $7,000-$8,000 tax.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    This idea is certainly not ready for the ballot. A lot of additional analysis needs to be done.

    What additional services do we need?

    And by the way, our fire department personnel are among the highest-paid city staff members. That needs to be evaluated too.

    Bob Jacobs

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • Cobbnaustic

    They will not stop until they tax us all out of our homes.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • JulesJames

    Thank you for the quality journalism. This RFA seems to be the worst of most worlds -- higher costs, a fracturing of taxing limits, less accountability. Now needs to be addressed the quality of expected service. My guess is a decline, as stations close to the city limits are re-positioned and closed as redundant.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • jimlazar

    There is a lot of deception going on here.

    First, they are claiming that the inner workings of the fire benefit charge are a "proprietary" software model owned by the consultant. To date, they have refused to share the computer model that calculates the charges for each property.

    Second, it's a reverse-Robin Hood structure. Smaller homes pay a higher fee per square foot that larger, as opposed to a property tax that changes with the value (and size is a determinant of value). Smaller business pay a higher fee per square foot than larger businesses. This is the "square root" element, something I've never seen in any sort of tax or fee calculation. It's clearly designed to make passage easier, because the rich people in big homes are more likely to donate to a campaign to defeat passage of the RFA.

    Third, as the article mentions, while local property taxes are deductible from income in computing federal income tax payments, the "fee" would not be.

    But there are even more seditious elements of this. It appears that this proposal, if approved, would cause a sharp decrease in Olympia's funding for parks and open space, because it would reduce the property tax that Olympia receives (transferring that to the RFA). Parks currently gets 11% of the property tax revenue in Olympia. It would become 11% of a much smaller number.

    And not a bit of mention about how the asserted improved efficiencies of a larger, two-city agency would save money or improve service quality. That's the only justification for a new entity and higher taxes and fees.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • jimlazar

    A note on Bob Jacobs' post. Below are the top 20 Olympia salaries for the year 2020, from the online database that The Olympian publishes and which you can download.

    Name Title Total Pay

    EVERS, PAUL E POLICE SERGEANT $195,722

    RIGHTMIER, GREGORY V Fire BATTALION CHIEF-DAY SHIFT $193,096

    JELCICK, AARON J POLICE CHIEF - INTERIM $188,097

    BURNEY, STEVEN J CITY MANAGER $187,066

    CHURCHWELL, TROY M FIRE PARAMEDIC LIEUTENANT $177,244

    AHLF, SCOTT K MUNICIPAL COURT JUDGE $176,356

    RUS, AARON T FIRE LIEUTENANT $175,460

    ALLEN, RICHARD E POLICE LIEUTENANT $174,676

    YOUNG, JAMES D Fire BATTALION CHIEF $172,526

    HERBIG, JEFFREY B POLICE SERGEANT $170,852

    WINNER, JASON T POLICE SERGEANT $170,473

    PEARCE, KORY L POLICE OFFICER $170,358

    HIROTAKA, RYAN T POLICE SERGEANT $170,288

    WYLLIE, BRYAN D POLICE SERGEANT $170,043

    FROST, DAVID C FIRE PREVENTION OFFICER $169,766

    CARSON, TODD A Fire BATTALION CHIEF $169,523

    SULLIVAN, DEBBIE L ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER $168,989

    BARBER, MARK E CITY ATTORNEY $168,891

    STAHLEY, KEITH E ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER $168,670

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • JWulgaru

    An aspect of this that is not being recognized or addressed is the chronic underfunding by the city of Olympia of the fire department in order to free up more money for pet projects, the biggest being the gobs of money thrown at "fixing" the transient problem. Not only has the fire department not grown in any meaningful way in 10 years, but the increase in services provided to the transients also has led to a massive increase in call volume for the fire department with no matching increase in service.

    It would behoove the JOLT to research this aspect of the RFA as well. To start, compare Lacey Dist. 3 with OFD, and you will find a very similar size in call volume and demand for services, but Lacey has a budget nearly THREE times as large once you account for the revenue generated by OFD.

    Olympia has certainly found creative ways to rob their taxpayers of money and services in order to spend it like drunken sailors on "mitigation sites" and "tiny villages".

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • Miller19

    They are planning to build a bureaucracy to run a service that will deteriorate over time and cost significantly more.

    Saturday, August 6 Report this

  • KimDobson

    This is unaccountable taxation . What is wrong with current system Property tax Levies for construction and operational costs ,administration and Fire trucks etc sent to voters to approve or disapprove ? It sounds like a scam especially the privately owned proprietary software for figuring tax rates for different property? The group ( 6 unnamed city council members ) hatching this RFD fee rate schedule had better explain why this software is secret number one and why this is a better way to conduct fire protection services and why it's in the public interest ? Also Medic One already has separate Property tax levy vote which always passes and seems to functioning well ,what is wrong with the current system ? Jim Lazar has identified another problem,its another regressive tax on home owners of smaller modest homes on fixed income and social security ,this really stinks . Jim Lazar Quote "Second, it's a reverse-Robin Hood structure. Smaller homes pay a higher fee per square foot that larger, as opposed to a property tax that changes with the value (and size is a determinant of value). Smaller business pay a higher fee per square foot than larger businesses. This is the "square root" element, something I've never seen in any sort of tax or fee calculation. It's clearly designed to make passage easier, because the rich people in big homes are more likely to donate to a campaign to defeat passage of the RFA. " as Bob Jacobs says this not ready for a vote ,we need transparency not more consultants with expensive software hiding true costs until the wool has been pulled over everyone's eyes ! Yours , Kim Dobson

    Sunday, August 7 Report this

  • JamesGeluso

    jimlazar,

    It’s not correct that this would result in less funding for Olympia parks. Departments aren’t allocated a percentage, they are allocated dollars. Olympia’s property taxes revenue would shrink, but so would its expenses. The parks will, assuming the council acts like normal people would expect, end up with a higher percentage of a smaller pie, because the Fire Department percentage will go from whatever it is now to 0 percent.

    Which doesn’t mean this is a good idea! I have questions and concerns too. But its impact on parks is not one of them.

    Sunday, August 7 Report this

  • JamesGeluso

    I’m bothered by this article. There’s nothing wrong with having opinions, but come on.

    The FBC is one option being presented. The other is a standard property tax, with a lowering of city tax equal to the new tax from the fire district.

    The slides you presented includes a explicit call for two additional BLS transport units. Is this enough? I don’t know. But it’s not right to ignore it entirely when you comment on most of the slides being about other things.

    Sunday, August 7 Report this

  • RileyJ

    A tax by any other name is still a tax. Can anyone tell me what or how I would benefit? I am on a fixed income with property taxes raised regularly. I understand the value and need for taxes but I have three fire stations within a mile of my house. The fire stations are nicer than most homes. The current salaries according to the list in comments are certainly adequate. More bureaucracy with no measurable outcomes. No thanks. It is time to start saying no to new taxes and fees until we know what we are paying for and how they measure success.

    Sunday, August 7 Report this

  • Cobbnaustic

    I like you jimlazar. Thumbs up.

    Thursday, August 11 Report this

  • jimlazar

    James Galuso is apparently unaware of the Interlocal Agreement between the City of Olympia and the Olympia Metropolitan Parks District. That agreement requires the City to appropriate 11% of the city's revenues from property tax, sales tax, business tax, and utility tax for parks purposes.

    That mandate was insisted upon by parks supporters as a condition of working to pass the metropolitan parks district measure in 2015. There was mistrust, because the City Council had not fully maintained general fund parks funding as expected with the Parks and Sidewalks measure was passed in 2004.

    The MOU is available online, and the relevant language is in Paragraph 4.1.1 on Page 2. https://cms7files.revize.com/olympia/Do***ent_center/Government/Metropolitan%20Park%20District/24198%20-%20City%20and%20MPD.pdf

    This is highly unusual. I do not know of other cities with a contractual obligation to dedicate a specific percentage of the property tax to parks. But this is the case in Olympia. A reduction in the City property tax, as proposed by the Regional Fire Authority proposal as now written, would therefore directly result in a reduction in the City's obligation to appropriate general fund money to parks. And, to my knowledge, no other department has a fixed share of the general fund budget; the Fire Department has been gradually getting a larger and larger share of the general fund budget.

    I certainly support adequate funding for fire services. Don't get me wrong on that. But it should come through a voter-approved increase in the property tax, through what is known as a "levy lid lift" not through a diversion of funds to a less-accountable special government agency.

    Mr. Galuso owes an apology to the readers of Jolt for his misinformed comment.

    Monday, August 15 Report this