Northwest NEWS

January 21, 2002

Local News

Fire district changes formula to compute benefit charge

by Jeanette Knutson
   Staff Writer
   There's a little bit of grousing going on in and around Woodinville of late. The Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District has sent out its benefit charge notices, and not all those on the receiving end are pleased.
   It seems the fire district has changed how it computes its benefit charge.
   In the past the fee was based on the assessed value of livable areas on a property, and other factors such as how close houses were to fire stations or hydrants.
   This year the fee is based on the total square footage of all structures on a property, including decks, garages and carports.
   "All of a sudden, my 25-year-old 2,140-square-foot Kingsgate tract house turned into a 3,180-square-foot paradise," said J Palmer Smith. Smith, retired and "living," as he describes it, "on a vastly restricted income," speculates that the calculations used to gauge his square footage are off by some 580 square-feet, calling the benefit charge "way inflated." He filled out an appeal form and posted it last Wednesday.
   "They've changed the way they level the charge. ... I think this bears looking into," he said.
   Smith figures he's been socked with an 87.8 percent increase in the fire district benefit charge in one year.
   "The crummy thing about it is, you can't deduct it from your taxes if you itemize because it's not a tax. It's a benefit charge. It's like those SWM (Surface Water Management) fees. They're not taxes either."
   Howard Heflin, also retired, also from Kingsgate, said of his benefit charge notice, "I was extremely surprised. Basically, they've doubled my benefit charge. I suspect they've modified the way they do their calculations, but they didn't bother to tell anyone. I think they're playing fast and loose with the process. They may well be within their right to do so (alter the formula utilized to determine the benefit charge rate), but are they being responsible? Are they being forthright with the public? No, I don't think so. ... I suspect they would say, 'We did everything according to the rules ...'" said Heflin.
   He is also appealing his benefit charge.
   King County Assessor Scott Noble said his office has been fielding calls about the benefit charge. " I understand the fire district was referring people to our office. I don't know why. The fire district may have used our database but we sure did not do the math.
   "Apparently, consultants have come up with some formula for them. I am not aware who the consultants are, nor what their formula looks like. ... If they are adding all the square footage for any particular parcel from our database, it could get as bad as doubling the actual square footage.
   " For instance, we have the total living area square footage indicated, as well as the square feet on the first floor, second floor, et cetera. We also have square footage associated with patios, decks, carports et cetera in our database.
   "As to the benefit charge, it is not classified as a 'property tax.' I have always had a problem with the concept, and quite frankly the charge is a way to get around the property tax limits in the law. As the benefit charge is approved at the polls by voters, I think it is only common sense to share the formula with the public, and advise the citizens of any changes," said Noble.
   A measure granting the fire district permission to collect a benefit charge passed with an 85.72 percent approval rating in the April 24, 2001 Special Election. The measure read: "Shall Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District be authorized to continue voter-authorized benefit charges each year for six years, not to exceed an amount equal to sixty percent of its operating budget, and be prohibited from imposing an additional property tax under RCW 52.16.160?"
   According to the King County Elections Web site, only 15.17 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 4,171 in all, with 3,571 voting for the benefit charge and 595 voting against it. In order to pass, the measure required a super majority, or at least a three-fifths (60 percent) majority.
   For some, it may seem hard to believe that so few voting on a Special Election issue (4,171) could affect so many (approximately 50,000 fire district residents, according to Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District Fire Chief Steve Smith).
   But King County Elections Superintendent Julie Anne Kempf explained, "All that was required was a 60 percent majority vote. Listen, you could have had five people vote, with three voting yes and the measure would have passed."
   The King County Elections Section Web site indicated that there was no explanatory statement submitted by the fire district for the Voters Pamphlet. Nor was there a statement "for" or "against" the measure. Nor were there rebuttals.
   Kempf said, "A Voters Pamphlet is not automatic for an election. A jurisdiction (in this case, the Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District) would have had to spend several thousand dollars to produce such a pamphlet. It is more common in spring elections not to have a Voters Pamphlet. That there was no pamphlet indicates no negligence on the part of the (district); it's just not a customary thing for spring elections," she said.
   District Fire Chief Steve Smith said the fire district had responded to some 200 calls as of Wednesday of last week, not all of them negative.
   Smith also considered the 50,000 or so residents of the 36-square-mile fire district duly notified about the formula change used in calculating the benefit charge. "Notification came with the benefit charge," he said. The explanation was in the letter inside, but a lot of people didn't bother to read the letter, he said.
   "Every year the law requires us to set the benefit charge rate," said Smith. "Typically people don't attend the hearing. This past year, the hearing was held (at 7 p.m.) on Nov. 7."
   The fire district purchased a public notice, which was published in the Woodinville Weekly's Nov. 5, 2001 edition (page 17). The notice stated that a public hearing was to take place "... to review and establish the fire district's benefit charges to be imposed in 2002 for the support of its legally authorized activities which will maintain or improve the service afforded in the district ... ."
   "We're supposed to collect $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation," said Smith, "but due to tax initiatives and restrictions on regular tax rolls, this year we're only able to collect 84.6 cents per thousand on the regular tax rolls."
   That 84.6 cents per thousand just isn't enough to run the district, he explained.
   So they had to raise the benefit charge. The benefit charge, which normally ran at 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation was bumped up to 65.4 cents, he said. The combination of the 84.6 cents that comes from the regular tax rolls and the 65.4 cents that figures into the benefit charge supplies the fire district with what they feel is necessary to keep the district going, said Smith.
   "If we didn't increase the benefit charge, we'd be closing a fire station or we wouldn't be able to maintain our equipment," he said.
   The district has a 1988 ladder truck that needs to be replaced.
   "This is emergency equipment that we rely on," said Smith.
   It and another needed engine will cost the district $1.3 million.
   Apparently, years ago the fire district figured out it needed $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to run its operation smoothly.
   "This has a long history," said Smith. "At one time, we had a $4 million reserve fund. But our board of commissioners at the time only allowed us to collect at a rate of $1.32 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. This eroded our reserve fund and put us in the situation we're in today. It hurt the fire district," he said.
   "Our plan is in May to go to the voters to lift the levy lid (from the current 84.6 cents) back to the $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation). Then we can reduce the benefit charge back to 50 cents," the chief said.
   He invites those who have questions about the fire district benefit charge to give the district a call at (425) 483-2131.
   The deadline for appealing an assessed benefit charge is Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 5 p.m. Call the number above for an appeal form.