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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Levy fails for northwest Spokane County fire district, but it may not have been legal anyway

Voters in northwest Spokane County last Tuesday rejected a levy lid lift for their fire district for the fourth time in the last decade.

The board of commissioners that oversees Spokane County Fire District 5 once again asked voters to approve a levy lid lift to the allowed maximum rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value after an identical measure failed during last year’s primary.

The current rate is $0.58 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The increase was necessary to maintain the current level of services, staffing, apparatus and facilities, as well as the purchase of additional equipment, the district said in the special election’s voter’s guide.

The measure failed Tuesday, with results showing 56.3% of voters rejected the increase in property tax.

Had the measure passed, the annually increasing levy rate may not have been legally enforceable, County Assessor Tom Konis said. It’s his view that it likely should have never been put on the ballot.

Konis said the issue lies in the measure’s language stating that the taxes would have increased by 1% or the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, whichever is greater, in each of the last five years of the six-year proposal. The increase was meant to keep pace with inflation, according to the voter’s guide.

Levy lifts with that caveat are only supposed to be voted on during primary or general elections, according to state law.

“It wouldn’t fall under our purview until it was deemed a certified levy,” Konis said. “Our interpretation of it is that it’s really not because of the escalation in there.”

Spokane County Auditor Vicki Dalton said ballot measures are usually checked by the county’s prosecuting attorney’s office when a jurisdiction files them. They are also checked by legal experts working with the jurisdiction that filed them.

“We have no legal standing in that whatsoever,” Dalton said. “We do not have the statutory authority to determine what goes on the ballot. We have enough just counting the votes.”

Brian Snure, a Des Moines, Washington-based attorney who works with fire districts throughout the state on ballot measures and worked with Fire District 5, declined to comment on the issue. The county prosecuting attorney’s office could not be reached for comment Monday.

Konis said he has asked the state Department of Revenue for confirmation on whether the annual percentage increase should have been included during the special election. Since the measure failed, it is unlikely the district will face any legal consequences if Konis’ understanding is correct.

Fire District Commissioner Bonnie Cobb said she was not aware there was a potential issue and declined to comment on the election results. District Chief Scott Lynch, and Commission Chair Isla Durheim, did not return requests for comment.

The district has had their last five requests for levy lifts rejected by voters, in 2007, 2017, 2019, 2023 and this year.