The city of Port Townsend needs fire and emergency medical services, and Proposition 1 on the Feb. 12 special election ballot would solidify its relationship with East Jefferson Fire Rescue District 1.
We recommend a yes vote from city voters to be annexed into the fire district service territory, an action that would equalize the rates city and county residents pay for both fire and EMS levies. A yes vote would also let city residents vote for fire district commissioners and pave the way toward an August ballot measure to expand the fire board from the current three at-large members to five members elected by districts, two of which would be entirely within city limits.
This fire annexation issue is a complicated one more than a decade in the making. The city dissolved its own fire department in 2007 and has since had a contract with East Jefferson Fire Rescue to provide those services. The city planned from the beginning to be included into fire district territory, but state law requires voter approval.
County residents who live in the fire district pay voter-approved rates for fire and EMS levies, which are itemized in their individual property tax bills. City residents pay for fire and EMS services based on a council-approved general property tax levy and a special-purpose property tax levy. That money goes into the city general fund before it’s allocated to the fire district. Annexation would simplify that process and eliminate the city’s special-purpose tax levy.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The city will retain in its general property tax — it can’t eliminate the tax due to state laws — the annual portion, $908,000 in 2018, allocated to the fire district, even though annexation will provide a different funding source for the district.
However, the city council passed a resolution last year to halt collection of that portion in 2019 and 2020 if the annexation measure passes. Consequently, city property taxes would decrease slightly during those two years.
In addition, the council has put limitations on how those funds can be spent when collection resumes in 2021. The money could be spent only on capital projects that include roads, parks and affordable housing. And the city could only collect up to 33 percent of the total in 2021 , then 66 percent 2022, before it could collect the whole amount in 2023.
Each year there would be a process for public input before the council approves the use of the funds. The council also could choose not to collect the funds at all.
Should the annexation vote fail, the city would continue to contract its fire and EMS services with East Jefferson Fire Rescue, and it would continue both the property tax levy and the special-purpose levy. But the city runs the risk of falling out of balance with the county in terms of the payment per capita, and it is obligated to keep up with paying the fire district.
Annexation of the city property into the fire district is an overall benefit to our region’s public safety and should be approved.