Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Four Spokane Fire districts asking for levy increases to keep up with inflation

A voter casts her ballot at the downtown Spokane Public Library in this October 2018 photo.  (Libby Kamrowski)

Four Spokane County fire districts are asking for increases to their tax levies in Tuesday’s election.

Fire Districts 3, 5 and 10 are asking for the levy rate to be set at the maximum rate of $1.50 per $1,000 in property valuation. District 13 is asking for a rate of $1.40 per $1,000. All four ballot measures require a simple majority to pass.

District 3

District 3 is asking for an increase of 28 cents per $1,000 of property valuation, with the current rate at $1.22 per $1,000 in assessed valuation.

District 3 has to renew their levy every few years. A 2001 state ballot initiative limited increases in property tax levies, requiring governments to ask for a “levy lid lift” to keep pace with growth in property values, which can cause the tax rate to drop.

“Our current rate is the lowest it’s been in more than a decade,” District 3 Fire Chief Cody Rohrbach said.

It is estimated that if approved, District 3 will receive an extra $1.5 million, according to Rohrbach.

District 3, which encompasses much of the southwest portion of Spokane County, has approximately 160 firefighters. Out of the 160, around 140 are volunteers, making it the largest volunteer department in the state, according to Rohrbach. District 3 has seen a 46% increase in their call volume over the past five years.

The levy funds about 95% of the district’s budget, according to Rohrbach.

“So that maintains all of our standard operations for the fire department and maintains our fleet,” Rohrbach said. “(It) pays for all our operations for fire training and equipment, (it) pays for capital projects and it pays for staffing personnel.”

District 5

Property owners located in District 5, much of the northwest corner of the county, would have to pay 72 cents more per $1,000 in property valuation if the department’s levy passes. Taxpayers currently pay approximately 78 cents per $1,000 in valuation of property, according to an explanatory statement from the fire district supporting the measure.

Attempts made to reach District 5’s fire chief were unsuccessful. District 5 Fire Commissioner Isla Durheim said she could not comment about the tax proposal unless the full fire commission voted to allow her to speak to the media.

District 10

Property owners in District 10, which encompasses much of the West Plains outside of Airway Heights, might see an increase of 69 cents per $1,000 in property valuation if the levy passes. Taxpayers are currently paying 81 cents per $1,000 in property valuation.

Fire officials are estimating, if passed, the levy will bring in an additional $1 million. Fire officials would be able to hire three more full-time firefighters.

District 10 currently has 62 firefighters. Out of the 62, 52 are volunteers. Their call volume has seen an increase of 64% from 2012 to 2022. The department is expecting to see an additional 43% increase this year.

District 10 is expecting 500 new apartment units being built in the West Plains, said Ken Johnson, the district’s chief.

“We haven’t renewed our levy since 2007 because the department chose to be very conservative and fiscally responsible,” Johnson said.

Without the levy, District 10 will not be able to continue with their growth plans, district officials say.

“Well, risk in the community will continue to increase as we grow the proposal that we put forward, that the commissioners voted on to put on the ballot, that allows us to basically commit 50% of that to increase staffing to staff a second station, 100% of the time, and replace some key equipment that is years past its replacement date,” Johnson said.

District 13

The Newman Lake Fire District is asking for $1.40 per $1,000 in assessed home value instead of the $1.50 per $1,000 it was asking for last year, which voters rejected 60% to 36%.

The district’s operating expenses have gone up sharply in the last two years, driven by inflation, said Administrative Assistant Robin Harbin. “This is right in line with the inflation rate,” she said of the increase.

Fire districts are allowed to tax up to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed home value for basic expenses. But that levy drops in value over the years since the total dollar amount collected is only allowed to go up by 1% each year. Newman Lake’s levy was last at $1.50 per $1,000 in 2015 and was at $1.40 in 2017. Now, the rate is 79 cents per $1,000.

Raising the levy to the 2017 rate of $1.40 per $1,000 would cost the owner of a $300,000 home an extra $15 per month.

Newman Lake operates with few paid staff, but a levy lid lift will allow the district to hire another employee who will help train all new volunteers recruited by the district in recent months.

Correspondent Nina Culver contributed to this report.

Samantha Fuller's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.