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Ballot seeks levy lift

Fire District 4 wants boost to help pay for growth in calls

Emergency calls in Spokane County Fire District No. 4 have been increasing year after year, but the district’s property tax revenue has not gone up at the same pace.

Fire commissioners are asking voters on Feb. 9 to lift a state-imposed lid on the district’s annual property tax collections.

The current levy rate is 86 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The ballot proposal would raise the rate to the state maximum of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation starting with collections in 2011. The cost of the increase for the owner of a $100,000 home would be about $61 a year.

It would take a simple majority to approve the measure.

The higher levy would pay for ongoing operations and allow the district to begin 24-hour staffing at Station No. 42 at Chattaroy after the station is expanded to provide for sleeping quarters.

Funding would also be available to build a replacement for Station No. 41 in Deer Park and a new station on Elk-Chattaroy Road. New fire trucks and other equipment would be funded with the levy increase. Another firefighter would be added to the staff in future years.

Fire Chief Ed Lewis said the district commissioners have decided to pay for capital improvements through annual revenues rather than through a bond issue. That allows the district to avoid interest and other financing charges.

The district has seen a 47 percent increase in the number of calls for service from 2002 through 2008 at the same time the district has been limited to a 1 percent increase in collections on existing properties because of Initiative 747 in 2001.

The district has the option of asking voters to lift the so-called levy lid.

A proposal to lift the lid in August was rejected with 57-percent no vote, but that ballot measure included a provision to allow a 4 percent increase in collections each year through 2015.

Lewis said at the time that voters may have been confused about the issue. The district has been trying to get the word out to district residents through meetings, a newsletter and letter from commissioners.

Lewis said the district’s commissioners trimmed the Feb. 9 request by eliminating the provision allowing for 4-percent increases in collections for subsequent years.

The current proposal would allow the district to make the maximum collection in 2011, but then be limited to the 1 percent increase in the years after that.

The district had 2,260 calls in 2008, compared with 1,542 calls in 2002.

Fire Chief Ed Lewis said the increase is largely the result of residential growth. He said he wants the district to be able to respond to multiple calls at the same time. Last year, the district had multiple calls 316 times.

“The crux of the problem is call volume, and planning for today and tomorrow’s call volume,” Lewis said.

He expects call volume to increase another 40 to 60 percent by 2016.

The chief declined to specify what would happen if voters decline to approve the levy increase, but said that the district would continue to provide around-the-clock service as best it can.

“We will continue to do business as we are,” he said.

“Absent this passing, we are going to have to evaluate how we are going to provide the service we have today,” Lewis said.

Since 2002, the district has staffed four stations 24 hours a day with a mix of full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters.

The stations are spaced strategically at Deer Park, Riverside, Colbert and at U.S. Highway 395 and Monroe Road in what the district calls its “four corners” staffing.

The district has five other stations staffed solely by volunteers.

The district covers 330 square miles in the northern portion of the county with more than 32,000 residents.

Current staff is 14 full-time, 29 part-time and 155 volunteer firefighters.

The station in Deer Park is smaller and more crowded than the other, newer facilities in the district. Part of one truck bay in Deer Park was converted to sleeping space to house firefighters. The station does not have a separate area for decontaminating fire gear from a hazardous materials incident.

“The facility is lacking,” Lewis said. “We absolutely feel we’ve maximized the existing space.”

The chief said the district commissioners have been careful with the public’s money over the years, and that if the levy is increased, voters can be sure they will continue to spend money well. The current budget is $3.8 million a year.


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