Soaring land values and higher property taxes have caused Newman Lake Fire and Rescue Chief Stan Cooke to rethink his agency’s request for more money.
He took to Facebook recently to disclose that he had asked the Spokane County Election Board to remove a levy from the ballot. But the ballots had already been printed. So Cooke wrote online that he understands if people are reluctant to vote for what’s called a levy lid lift.
“So, I want to convey that not passing the levy lid lift is OK,” he said. “If we delay … we will be okay – but our plan of improving firefighter coverage/response will be impaired and possibly delayed.”
Assessed property values have increased an average of 30% in Spokane County. The result is higher taxes. Coupled with inflation, people are tightening their budgets
Fire districts are usually funded by levies. Districts are allowed to assess a levy of $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed home value without a vote, and most districts have a maintenance and operations levy and/or an EMS levy that must be approved regularly by voters. However, the basic levy of $1.50 drops in value over the years since the amount is only allowed to increase by 1% per year.
Newman Lake Fire’s levy is currently at $1.02 per $1,000 in assessed home value. The levy lid lift would boost it back up to $1.50 per $1,000. “If we don’t do a levy lid lift, for 2023 it will be 77 cents,” Cooke said. “That 1% cap, that doesn’t keep up with the cost of inflation.”
The district originally put the measure on the ballot to raise enough money to pay for two full-time firefighters. The district has a part-time chief, a part-time deputy chief, volunteer firefighters and resident volunteer firefighters.
Cooke said he wanted to retire this month and believes he should be replaced by a full-time chief. “This job requires a full-time chief,” he said. “To be competitive in this region, that’s another $43,000 on top of my pay.”
The deputy chief position should also be full-time, Cooke said. Though the district uses volunteer and resident volunteer firefighters, many don’t stay longer than a year or two, Cooke said. That means there needs to be training available for new volunteers.
“Our volunteer count is way down,” he said. “They’re not available to train others. I need two full-time firefighters to do that. This is where the money was going to go.”
The district currently has 14 volunteers, and only seven of those volunteers are trained to use the self-contained breathing apparatus that must be worn while fighting a fire. And of those seven, only two are under the age of 50. “This is a young person’s game,” Cooke said. “We have a service model based on volunteers. It’s declining and will continue to decline.”
Having two full-time chiefs and two full-time firefighters working at once alongside a volunteer shift supervisor will improve responses in the district, Cooke said. “That would be a nice response to house fires, car crashes and full arrests,” he said.
But Cooke has come up with some solutions to the sky-high property values. If the levy lid lift is approved by voters, the district could elect not to collect the full $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed home value. “With a 30 percent increase, I really only need $1.30,” he said. “If it does pass, I will drop it down to the money amount needed to fund those four positions.”
Another option if the levy lid lift passes is to drop the amount the district asks for when their EMS levy comes up for renewal in 2024, Cooke said. That’s similar to what the Spokane Valley Fire Department has said it will do to counter the high property value assessments. Valley Fire Chief Frank Soto Jr. has announced that the department will reduce a levy next year by $10 million if their levy lid lift passes in August. That would bring the department’s total levy rate to below what it is now.
Still, Cooke has only been in the job for two years and COVID meant there has been little interaction with the public. He said he knows that he hasn’t built a relationship with the community.
“I can understand why people are skeptical,” he said. “I fully recognize this is a tough time right now.”
He’s already trimming costs where he can, but if the lid lift doesn’t pass, some cuts will likely have to happen, Cooke said. “It doesn’t make sense to have all this firefighting equipment and no one to use it,” he said. “We’ll have to cut some stuff, equipment wise.”
If the levy lid lift doesn’t pass, the new staffing would be delayed. Cooke said he has already agreed to postpone his retirement until June 2023 and will continue working for part-time pay. In that case, the lid lift would have to go back on the ballot in 2024. While the new staffing plans can be delayed, they can’t be eliminated, Cooke said.
“I still have staffing issues I need to deal with,” he said. “Somewhere, we’re going to have to have an increase.”
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