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For leaders, fire district idea gaining economic appeal

New entity, operating outside city funding parameters, would have own taxing authority

Spokane leaders have a new idea for solving their budget woes: Give up the Spokane Fire Department.

Mayor Mary Verner has formed a committee to study the creation of a fire district to replace the fire department, which has served the city since 1884. The district would mirror the city’s borders and have its own taxing authority and governing board.

“Given that we have this economic condition that we’re in, we can wring our hands, cut services, scale back and that may be what we actually do,” Verner said. “But we also have a responsibility to look at other options that are out there, including the formation of districts.”

Several other city officials say the idea is worth a look.

“We have to look at anything that can help us keep our costs under control,” said Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. “The devil’s in the details as to whether it could be set up to provide a savings to the taxpayer.”

Spokane Valley already has a fire district, which operates separately from the city of Spokane Valley. Chief Mike Thompson of the Spokane Valley Fire Department will advise Verner’s committee.

Thompson said it can be challenging to run a fire department without the support that a city offers, such as human resources and financial expertise. But independence also has positives, he said.

“The biggest benefit would be that you’re in control of your own destiny,” Thompson said. “You’re not in any competition with any of the other departments for their dollars.”

Verner said she isn’t sold on the idea for Spokane, but that it should at least be explored. She said the committee will examine what would happen to the taxes the city currently collects for fire services if a new fire district levies its own taxes.

The city spends about $31 million a year on its fire department.

Last year, the state Legislature changed the law to allow cities to form fire districts. The Senate unanimously approved the bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and then-Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. The House did so 93-5. Creating a district would require a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters to place the plan on the ballot.

Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said turning the city into a fire district could make it easier to pursue consolidation of fire districts. State law has been changed in the past decade to allow the creation of a “regional fire authority.”

“I have always been one who believes that moving toward a unified or some type of consolidated fire service in Spokane makes sense,” Williams said.

But he and others say merging fire districts would be politically difficult.

George Orr, a former state legislator who served as a Spokane Valley firefighter for 33 years, said he’s heard ideas about consolidating fire service in Spokane County for four decades. Rural residents would be rightfully suspicious of being part of a district that included Spokane, he said.

“They’re not going to take kindly to someone screwing with their fire service,” Orr said. “The city wants to shift the burden of the cost and the local folks won’t take well to that.”

Orr, a Spokane resident, added that creating a fire district with the same boundaries as city limits would be little more than “a paper shuffle.”

City Council President Joe Shogan said it’s worth examining a regional fire district to see if it could provide more efficient service.

“I don’t see much sense in just doing a one-entity fire district,” Shogan said.

Thompson, of the Spokane Valley Fire Department, doubts that there’s much support for the creation of one large county district. But there is room for better cooperation in the region, he said.

“The best step would be to take it in small steps,” Thompson said. “Then there’s a bigger possibility of more steps down the road.”

Verner said she hopes the committee comes up with a recommendation about the formation for a fire district by the summer.

“If we went in that direction it would be a huge shift for our community,” Verner said. “We won’t undertake it lightly without a lot of analysis.”

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