Proposed Regional Fire Authority

More errors found in proposed Fire Benefit Charge Calculator for apartments, condos and mixed-use owners

Tumwater and Olympia voters are being asked to vote on Proposition 1 now


In addition to those reported previously, The JOLT has identified more errors in the calculator provided by Olympia and Tumwater’s proposed Regional Fire Authority (RFA). The calculator allows Tumwater and Olympia property owners to estimate their Fire Benefit Charges (FBC) that would be imposed if Proposition 1 passes.  See related story.

Proposition 1 is the only issue on a special ballot due next Tuesday, April 25. If approved by 60 percent of votes received, it will create the Olympia Tumwater Regional Fire Authority. The Regional Fire Authority Planning Committee determined that, if approved, the RFA would use the FBC to raise $10.5 million in 2024.

Last week we reviewed the cities’ consultants’ findings and found that while some issues were corrected, others still reflect errors in the official Fire Benefit Charge calculator. The full report is attached to this story. 

Charges vary widely

Opponents and proponents of the proposition both understand the FBC is regressive in that owners of smaller buildings would often be charged more per square foot than would those who own larger structures. While this view is generally accurate, because of the three-tiered structure of the charge, some properties that are calculated near the margins of the thresholds of 2,000 and 3,000 square feet fit into a sweet spot.


  • Residential rates for the FBC ranged from as little as $ 0.09 per square foot per year ($263.51/year) for a 2,999-square foot single-family residence with sprinklers to $0.18 per square foot per year ($100.55/year) for a 569-square foot single-family residence without fire sprinklers.

Apartment rates

  • In two example properties The JOLT reviewed, fire benefit charges ranged from as little as $ .02 per square foot per year ($26.91 per average size unit per year) for an estimated 955-square foot apartment without sprinklers, to $0.30 per square foot, ($199 per year) for an average 670 square foot apartment. Why the difference? It’s in the square-root figure calculated into the FBC.

The JOLT has independently identified significant errors regarding the FBCs that would be assessed to owners of apartments (i.e., “multi-family” defined as parcels with five or more units), condos and mixed-use buildings.


In his report issued before the city council voted, the consultant, Deployment Dynamics Group’s Larry Rabel, found the RFA missed 95% of the square footage at the Black Lake Apartments at 3300 21st Avenue SW Olympia.  See attached report. 

A quick check against the Assessor’s property database confirms that the apartment complex is much bigger than the RFA’s calculator indicates. The consultant told the cities that the FBC charge in their database showed only 15,924 square feet, while the property records at the Thurston County Assessor’s office show it should be 273,091 square feet. 

The JOLT checked to see if the problem, reported to the cities last year was corrected in the RFA’s official calculator by entering the apartment’s parcel number, 12821310100.  The problem persists as of today. 

The JOLT also tested the official calculator for additional apartment properties beyond those samples identified by the consultant and found additional errors. Some of these differences are due to errors in accounting for the square footage and others might be related to faults in the cities’ official calculator program itself.

For example, a 370-unit apartment complex in Tumwater with a 2023 building valuation of $78 million would be charged only $475.85 per year, according to the official calculator. That property, parcel 12827240106, has 353,503 square feet just in residential structures, plus some 63,276 in garages and carports. Its FBC bill would be $9,956.46 per year, $ .02 per square foot per year, according to the private calculator. If each apartment was billed equally, each tenant would pay an additional $26.91 per year. In comparison to what the apartment pays for Olympia property taxes, it would pay about 6% more.

That calculator was developed by Larry Dzieza, an Olympia resident who also provided guidance to his city about the proposed RFA prior to the city councils’ votes to refer it to voters.

In another example, the cities’ official calculator shows the apartment building at 114-118 Jefferson Street NE, Olympia (Parcel # 78505300100) with a 2023 building valuation of $583,300 would pay an FBC of $1,596.80.  But the correct assessment for that 5,360-square-foot building should be $1,129.11, according to this calculator on the No on Proposition 1 website. If each of the eight apartments was billed equally, each tenant would pay an additional $141.14 per year in fire benefit charges.  In comparison to what the apartment pays for Olympia property taxes, it would pay about 111% more, more than doubling its charge as a result of the RFA FBC charge.

VIDEO – Why are all apartments charged at the same rate per square foot?

Olympia Fire Chief Todd Carson asked whether one rate should apply to all apartment developments on June 27, 2022


Condominium units each have their parcel numbers, even though they might be in a single building. They would be charged using the Residential formula based on data in the county assessor’s database.  It would be difficult to add up the multiple owners’ properties so that they might be charged at the same rate as apartments. 

The adopted RFA Plan says that “Residential: includes residential buildings (and condominiums when unit ownership information is available from the Thurston County Assessor’s database) with up to four units.”

Typical of the kind of miscount noted by those the quality consultant observed for apartments include shared spaces like hallways, workout facilities and meeting rooms.  Each and all of these are being attributed to each unit, so the official calculator grossly overcharges condo, cooperative and co-housing properties.

Using unit #4101 at Capitol Lake Towers, 1910 Evergreen Park Drive SW, (Parcel # 38760040100), the official FBC calculator adds the condominium’s total common facilities area in the condominium complex, which adds up to 21,120 square feet of shared space to each unit. Most condominiums and similar developments allocate costs proportionally, according to the percent of square feet per unit or by dividing the number of units into the whole.   

If the latter formula were used for this parcel, the correct FBC charge for unit 4101, at 1,808 square feet,  would be $179.24 at the residential rate, not the $1,310.13 shown in the official FBC calculator. The Olympia property tax for the unit is $549.85 meaning the condo owner would be paying over twice as much in FBC as they pay today for all city services – including fire services.

Capitol Lake Towers’ unit #905, with 1,004 square feet, is being charged the same as another condominium unit at $1,310.13. The Olympia property tax for the parcel is just $368.20.

Woodard Lane Cohousing, legally structured as a condominium, offers another example. Parcel 84690400104, 1650 Woodard Lane, Unit D-4, is shown in county records as having 1,246 square feet.  The charge shown on the SaveOurFD calculator is $148.80. According to the official calculator, its owner would be billed $1,057.40 for its FBC, because some 5,832 additional square feet of clubhouse, carport and other common facilities – all of the cohousing group’s shared facilities – are tacked on.

Regarding these results, Larry Dzieza said, “It is impossible to be sure what contributes to the full range of errors, but the majority is repeatedly charging each condo for shared-use spaces in the condominium complex instead of distributing it among the condo units.”

Mixed Use Buildings

Mixed-Use buildings (for example, ground floor offices or retail along with apartments upstairs) are supposed to be charged as commercial buildings at a rate that is sometimes higher than residential.  The quality assurance consultant did not discover this error.

The tiered system is complicated; if the building is large enough, the cost per square foot, as little as $ .02, is a small fraction of the cost per square foot of a smaller building.  

Excerpt from the adopted FBC Formula

An example of the error is COLUMBIA HEIGHTS PARTNERS LLC – 123 4th Avenue, parcel #78500500100. The official calculator reports that the owner will be charged $6,403.67.  This is in line with the building being treated as an apartment. 

But as the county data shows, it should be charged as a mixed-use building, as it contains retail space.

The correct charge would be as a commercial building at $14,859.58. 

The major error is treating the parcel as an apartment when it clearly is a mixed-use building and should, according to the adopted plan, be charged as a commercial building.  

The same kind of error can be found regarding the iconic Views on 5th building, parcel number 91005502000.


As The JOLT previously reported, the consultants, late in the process, discovered 30 million square feet of previously unaccounted-for properties, largely commercial. 

An example identified by the consultant was Parcel 11819110100 (Crown Beverage Packaging on Fones Road), for which the RFA’s initial consultants missed 88% of the 235,460 square feet of structures. Instead of the $6,389.94 the official calculator says the charge would be, it is $22,450.80. 

Why This Matters

Beyond illustrating the cities failure to correct errors identified by its consultants to show property owners’ what their fire benefit charges would be, the incorrect figures suggest that funding for the RFA through the FBC could be higher or lower than the plan assumes.  It can also mean that the RFA, if passed, would have costly appeals if alert property owners choose to challenge their fee.  The quality consultant from Deployment Dynamic Group’s pointed out this out in his findings, here: 

“The RFA Board should be aware that the first few years of the annual benefit charge, errors in data will be identified. RCW 52.26.250 allows property owners to bring forth complaints. Errors of fact such as structure size or exempt status’ will be brought forward at this time. Adjusting charges for these errors will reduce the RFA’s available budget and should be anticipated. The Planning Committee or Board should add a budget percentage to the proposed budget to account for both data errors and shortages in collections of benefit charges by Thurston County.” 

To see the March 29, 2023, debate between proponents and opponents of Proposition 1, sponsored by The JOLT News Organization and the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, please click here.

CORRECTION: April 22, 2023:   The original version of this story stated that the property tax for Unit 4101 at Capitol Lake Towers was for the building, not the unit. We have corrected this. 


9 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JW

    I'd be curious to know how recently updated the database that the calculator pulls from is. In my experience these types of things get thrown up on a website and then don't get touched again leaving a lag in data accuracy. Some of these issues could have already been fixed and simply aren't reflected in the calculator. Or maybe it is up to date and there is some cleaning up to do.

    If approved next week, the FBC doesn't take effect immediately leaving time for errors to be identified and corrected. More of the errors I've seen brought up have been from under accounting for square footage rather than over which leaves me to think this isn't likely to cause a giant hole in the budget.

    I find it somewhat perplexing that people expect something of this enormity to be perfect right out of the gate; yes, there have been problems identified, those problems have been at least partially fixed, and I think we can expect reasonable effort expended to have this as accurate as possible as the calendar progresses.

    Or the ballot proposition fails which renders this moot and we can move forward in the news cycle no longer having to hear or see the phrase RFA. I think we all have some RFA fatigue setting in at this point.

    Friday, April 21 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    My thanks to Larry Dzieza and other members of the public for carefully reviewing the work of the committee and consultants.

    It seems like each new report brings more bad news, whether it is inaccuracies in the calculator or failure to correct errors when noticed or worst of all, knowingly proposing a regressive fee structure.

    This whole process looks thoroughly flawed. We need to vote it down and send it back for further consideration.

    Bob Jacobs

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • JohnGear

    So to whom should the voters look to be made whole on this — the consultants? We’re paying for a complete special election for precisely one measure — tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars — for what turns out to be even more of a half-baked idea than imaginable. There were lots of fundamental contradictions and issues with this proposal, so it should never have been referred to the voters in the first place — if it was a good idea, another six months or a year would not have hurt it. Instead, we are just lucky that folks like Dzieza and Jim Lazar have been tirelessly surfacing these problems before the vote.

    In what I hope is the aftermath of defeat of prop 1, we do need to look and have a serious think about how we fund municipal services in this state — all of them — including fire.,

    Cities all over America are increasingly having to confront that they have made commitments to fund things that they lack the wherewithal to deliver on. This is certainly true in the south sound area. If you added up the costs to maintain or replace all the infrastructure we have in place that is wearing out relentlessly, year upon year, you will see that we are insolvent.

    Our pattern of car-dominated suburban density style of development is bankrupting us. Sadly, rather than addressing the root cause and changing our development practices, we get proposals like this RFA, which doesn’t address the cause of constrained funding, it just proposes to put fire in a special category of services with the ability to extract money from the taxpayers pretty much at will, no matter what other priorities voters might have in the future. We are experiencing a birth dearth and are going to see a lot of pain in the schools system in years to come as well.

    The bottom line is that the bills are coming due for decades of low productivity development that has created a very high cost system, even as people are getting hammered by increased costs of living for housing and other necessities. By not building enough and dense enough housing, we’ve artificially forced up property values, which is great for property owners, but not so much for their kids or grandkids, who have no hope of being able to live in such neighborhoods.

    In the end, a lot of cities are either going to have to merge with others to get some economy of scale (by increasing the scope of management and eliminating as many administrative positions as possible) or disincorporate and go back to county level services instead of city service levels. We’re at the exact worst spot — we want urban level services, but we’re occupying the land in such a low-density, semi-rural way that we cannot afford what we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re due.

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • jimlazar

    The proposed Regional Fire Authority and its Fire Benefit Charge should be rejected by the voters, and the City Councils should be told to start over with a more normal approach to funding fire and emergency medical services.

    The hundreds -- or thousands -- of errors in the "official calculator" would simply get billed to people if this passes. And they would get to appeal to ... not the Assessor, not the Board of Equalization, but to the RFA itself. The fox guarding the henhouse.

    None of this would be known to the public if Larry Dzieza and the JOLT News had not educated the public to see the flaws, and enable them to cast an educated vote to reject the RFA. Thank goodness for the JOLT News.

    All of this could have been avoided if the Cities had heeded the advice of the public at their hearings: Abandon the goofy "square root of the square feet" method for collecting revenue, and apply a normal property tax to the assessed value of every building. That way people can predict their charges, have a well-established appeals process, and more expensive buildings will pay more for fire protection -- because they have more to protect.

    But the arrogance of certain City Council members, preferring to trust a shady consultant over their own public, brought us to this point.

    Meanwhile, the City Councils allowed their cities to blatantly violate the law in sending out a brochure that explicitly violated the ban on use of photos of buildings on fires and people on stretchers. Over $20,000 of public funds illegally spent to print and mail a blatantly illegal flyer to promote the flawed RFA. And the City Attorney wrote an "explanatory statement" we all received on our ballots that conveniently forgot to mention that this would be the largest property tax increase in the history of either Olympia or Tumwater. Not a peep that "your property tax bill will go up $200 - $500 per year (or perhaps $1,310/year if you happen to live in the Capitol Lake Towers condominiums.)

    In the short run the solution is simple: VOTE NO before Tuesday, April 25. Keep your fire service local. Don't give over control to shady consultants who cannot even calculate the cost of their proposal to apartment, condominum or business owners correctly.

    In the long run, we need better leadership in both of the Cities: at the City Council level, at the City Manager level, and at the City Attorney level.

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • zingZap33x

    I also want to thank JOLT for publishing this and other article on the RFA. I also want to thank Larry Dzieza for his tireless work tracking this proposal including attending all the meetings around the RFA and developing a Fire Benefit Charge calculator.

    The present proposal was poorly constructed with obvious flaws many of which were know from the beginning. What is most upsetting is that the City Councils (with the exception of Clark Gilman) voted to put this on the ballet. A ballet measure in and of itself is expensive, but then the City went to further expense in sending out a glossy promotional flyer. Additionally, the Fire Benefit Charge is regressive. The smallest houses get charged more per square foot than the largest houses, and small apartment buildings pay more than larger buildings. It is somewhat unfathomable that Councils that are so concerned about equity would put forth such a regressive proposal.

    We have top notch fire departments with excellent response times. Let’s keep them in Olympia and Tumwater and if they need more funding then do a levy lid lift.

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • Larry Dzieza

    JW's curiosity is worthy of being satisfied. Here is an idea. JW, why don't you ask the cities of Olympia and Tumwater "how recently updated the database the calculator pulls from is"? Then you can see if it is consistent with your "experience".

    Also ask them about your thinking whether this won't leave "a giant hole in the budget". But do get the documentation (with numbers) to substantiate what they say. Also remember that there is just as great a possibility that they are "over" counting in which case the hole is not in their budget but rather it will be in our family budgets.

    Either way, over- and under-charges, even if they net out to zero through off-setting errors, reflects poorly on the entire RFA effort.

    Finally, you say you are perplexed "...that people expect something of this enormity to be perfect right out of the gate". You are correct it is an enormous proposal. Knowing that, how can you be perplexed that people would expect the single most important municipal function of fire and emergency medical services be designed and implemented well?

    Why would anyone want to unnecessarily risk their lives and property to a half-baked, poorly understood (even by the advocates) and carelessly implemented plan? Especially when Tumwater and Olympia FDs are the BEST performing fire jurisdictions in the county and Olympia is second to none for a city its size in the State of Washington?

    If the RFA passes and then we find it has made mistakes in the way it assesses revenues, we could be in the West Thurston fire district situation where we will have to close fire stations and layoff firefighters and emergency responders -- that is not just a money problem that sending a refund check fixes. If that happens response times will skyrocket and real people are at risk to suffer injury or death and loss of property while the bugs are worked out.

    So, voters, why take the risk that the revenues will fall short due to the RFA not being able to count very well and/or from bad formulas in their programming? And even if the RFA revenue projection turns out to be on target due to the budgeteer's patron saint of offsetting errors, a lawsuit is likely from those who overpaid. This situation was noted by the RFA consultants and their on-loan-from-Olympia attorney and they said it would mean revenues would be put on hold or it will require a second election to set the fees correctly. And how would you fund an RFA while you wait for the outcome of the second election?

    I end with the prediction by the recently retired Tumwater City Manager, John Doan,

    "I'll be honest though, it is going, because it has to stand up as an organization. It is going to be a bumpy three or four or five years initially for the organization. There is not a whole lot we can do about that other than you know, raising the benefit charge to numbers that are that would probably be scary...". Hear him say it here:

    I urge you and others who now have the information to make an informed, data driven decision and vote NO on Prop. 1.

    Best wishes to all and the polls close at 8:00 pm next Tuesday.

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • waltjorgensen

    That the consultant hired by the two Cities to create a Regional Fire Authority can't get their calculator to work right, on the eve of the election, might be  laughable if the consequences weren't quite so serious.  We are already in the process of voting on a proposition that was conceptually flawed from the beginning and now is apparently computationally flawed as well.

    The fire benefit charge is √ of total square feet x (18)* x (category factor) x (response factor) x (risk factor) x (fire flow factor) x (discount)  Among other effects, comparing the square roots of numbers instead of the numbers themselves reduces the differences.  Take the numbers 9 and 16.  16 is 3/4 again as big as 9 [16/9 = 1.78].  The square roots of 9 and 16 are 3 and 4 respectively.  4 is only 1/3 bigger than 3 [4/3 = 1.33).  I think we all understand the square root function well enough.  What we don't understand is what its doing as part of a fire benefit charge formula.  How does its contribution map out, i.e., relate, to the real world?

    But these are details in the shadow of an overarching flaw.  While the charge for maintaining the ability to respond and provide services is based on the resources needed to put out a fire, less than 4% of calls to the fire house are for fires.  They are overwhelmingly for medical assistance and other non-fire related events.  These data were put together by

    Same for dispatching the police.  Analyzing publicly available 911 data between January 2019 and November 2021 from police departments in nine cities—including Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and Seattle—it was found that, in most of these cities, fewer than 3% of calls related to situations involving violent crime.  These data are from

    It's not just the waste of stockpiling and using inappropriate equipment and personnel for the public's needs, it's the even more serious problem of not having enough of the appropriate equipment or personnel on hand to fix the problems that people are actually having.  Too many fire trucks and firefighters.  Not enough rescue vehicles, medics, nurses or doctors in the field.

    I have a proposal.  Let's dispatch the right kind of vehicle and the right kind of people to handle emergencies.  And let's not keep them all at a central location like the fire house.  Let's deploy them around the city.  At the beginning of each shift, we'll pre-distribute them and the appropriate aid-givers around the city (area served) to minimize their collective travel time to all locations.  That means you might see them parked along the street somewhere. There could be differential needs by area, e.g., high fire vs high medical, certain kinds of medical, etc.  This will require some sophisticated computer analysis up front to create a plan.  After that, just follow the plan and update it periodically.

    What we really want is quality emergency medical response when we need it, and a fully-staffed and equipped fire department on the very rare occasions when we need them.  This measure does nothing to enhance either of these.  Big new fees.  No new service.  Vote NO.  Keep your fire service local.

    Saturday, April 22 Report this

  • jimlazar

    Indeed, the consultant now admits that they made errors for condominiums.

    The online calculator, hosted by the City of Tumwater, shows that a unit at the Capitol Lake Towers would pay over $1,300.

    But Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley wrote to one resident of the building that the "calculator/estimator is not correct..." See the text of his letter below.

    But, it turns out, the REVISED calculation provided by the consultant is ALSO incorrect. They re-calculated the condo at the single-family RESIDENTIAL rate. But the actual language governing the Fire Benefit Charge adopted by the two cities applies the much higher COMMERCIAL rate to every condo in a building that includes ANY commercial space (which this building does.)

    The errors compound on errors. The obvious solution is to vote this mistake down, and tell the City Councils to fund their fire departments adequately but frugally from traditional revenues like property tax and sales tax. Vote NO.


    According to our Fire Benefit Charge consultant, the online calculator/estimator is not correct for this building. The online estimator uses data from the County Assessor’s Office which has data for each unit and also for the entire building. The calculator incorrectly added commercial square footage into the calculation. I confirmed with the consultant that the Fire Benefit Charge for parcel 38760020200 is estimated to be $159.69. Regards, Chief Hurley

    Brian Hurley | Chief

    Tumwater Fire Department

    555 Israel Road SW | Tumwater, WA 98501

    Sunday, April 23 Report this

  • JW

    Atta' boy Larry: you're finally letting some of the snark out. I know it's always been bubbling under the surface of smug superiority.

    As to why I myself didn't personally call the city of Tumwater regarding the calculator, I would think the Jolt should have been thorough enough to confirm that themselves or at least make a note that they did.

    However, it is clear that it wasn't the Jolt per se that wrote this piece since the article is obviously your work under the guise of a Jolt production, for which I am disappointed.

    Sunday, April 23 Report this