The Regional Fire Authority planning committee, on Monday, November 14, opened a public hearing for Olympia and Tumwater community members to listen to the community members' opinions on the proposed merging of Olympia and Tumwater fire departments.
The first to air her comment was former council member Karen Messmer. She recognized the importance of fire and emergency response, saying, "It appears that we already have a great service in Olympia. I would be happy to support the Olympia tax levy that would provide more funding to maintain our excellent service."
However, the former Olympia councilmember criticized the proposed RFA as being regressive.
"If mobile homes can be exempted, then the formulas can be tailored so that they do not inflict economic harm to people least able to pay," said Messmer, who participated in the public hearing online. She refuses to support the RFA proposal unless the formulas are shown to be equitable.
Park funding cut
Messmer also announced that creating an RFA will significantly reduce park funding.
In an October 26, 2022, letter sent to the Olympia City Council, Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee chair Maria Ruth said the RFA, if approved, would reduce the total general fund account and correspondingly reduce the 11% of dedicated funding for OPARD (Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Department). The estimate for the 2023 loss to OPARD is $1.3 million.
"Having great parks and recreation system helps people to [stay] physically and mentally healthy. That can help avoid some of the emergency calls that the fire department is currently responding to," Messmer commented.
She urged the Olympia council members to adopt a commitment to show that the RFA proposal would not reduce parks funding.
Financial burden on the poor and loss of park funding
Another participant online, Jim Lazar, a former city advisory committee member, described the proposed RFA as a "reverse Robin Hood quietly buried in the Fire Benefit Charge formula."
Citing an example, Lazar compared that a locally-owned small apartment building weight was 23 cents a square foot while dropping three cents a square foot for a large family apartment complex owned by national corporations.
He said applying a uniform FBC charge per square foot for all residential buildings and a different uniform charge per square foot for commercial buildings can solve the problem of regressivity.
He added that the square root must be removed from the FBC formula. "I urge the committee to take action tonight to remove the square root from the formula and use a uniform fee per square foot."
"My environmental friends will not vote for a measure that reduces funding for parks and open space as this does. My economic justice friends will not vote for a measure that steals from the poor and gives to the rich as this proposal does. Many people in this community will not vote for a big tax or fee increase," Lazar told the committee.
Lazar offered an alternative to the RFA proposal, in which FBC is one of its funding factors. He said a levy lid lift is easier and more equitable.
"It would generate more funds for fire and more funds for parks. It requires only a 50% vote," Lazar concluded.
Resident Tim Erickson agreed with Messmer about allowing mobile homes to pay as well. Mobile homes were not factored in the Fire Benefit Charge.
He also inquired if it included the government buildings in fire protection services.
Olympia City Manager Jay Burney replied that the city currently has a fire service contract, and so are the state agencies. He said those contracts are factored into the RFA plan. "The FBC that you have seen reflects the state contract that is already in place."
Addressing the concerns of the public
Olympia council member Jim Cooper said the crux of creating RFA is to address the crisis, which he said both cities are not doing a very good job.
"Call response times are going down, our ability to transport people is getting more difficult every single day to the point where we are investing a bit of money and time in trying and building up our transport programs," Cooper pointed out.
On the possible reduction of parks funding because of RFA, Cooper said [parks] are secondary to ambulance or fire engine showing up on time.
He said the tax revenues to cities need to keep up with the growing city, and the option is to create a partnership through RFA.
"It doesn't save money, but over the long run, it keeps the exponential growth or the needed growth of fire service from hurting the parks funding even more. But when it comes down to it, people vote for public safety first," Cooper commented.
In trying to come up with equitable rates, Cooper emphasized that the committee members attempted to reduce the regressivity as much as possible. They even consider a flat rate per square foot.
He was confident that the committee would opt for the flat rate, but he said that had not been tested. "We are pretty sure we would be jeopardizing the new governmental entity if we set up FBC that was a flat rate," he said.
Tumwater council member Michael Althauser recognized that their model for the FBC formula is not ideal, but using a flat rate per square foot in the FBC formula is a "high risk." He added that it might be tossed out in court.
Althauser reiterated that the committee members had done due diligence to make the FBC fee as equitable as possible.
In a previous RFA planning committee meeting, Olympia City attorney Mark Barber warned against using a new method – based on square footage – would increase the legal risk.
He said the other RFAs had used the formula that the committee has been discussing, which has Fire Flow and square root. "At least, we would be consistent with other RFAS that have been formed in Washington State."
Barber explained a possible scenario of having the RFA underfunded if the FBC formula was challenged, based on square foot, and found invalid. "I don't necessarily think that if the fire authority was created by the requisite number of voters required, that would invalidate the creation of the district, but it would be seriously underfunded. RFA then could move forward and try to find another funding method."
The committee members voted on recommending the formation of the Olympia Tumwater Fire Authority to both city councils for approval of the plan for its operation, governance, and financing – including the FBC.
Four council members unanimously approved the motion raised by Tumwater council member Eileen Swarthout.
Council members Lisa Parshley of Olympia and Leatta Dahlhoff of Tumwater were absent.
Both city councils are expected to take legislative action on the RFA proposal on December 6, 2022.
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