As call volumes soared in the face of growth and voters twice denied levies necessary to keep them open, three out of five West Thurston Fire Authority stations closed this week.
Across the Lewis-Thurston county line, the agency’s neighbors worry for their own futures. Inevitably, Riverside Fire Authority Chief Mike Kytta said, what happens in Thurston County trickles into Lewis County within the following years.
At the same time, as Lewis County homeowners recently discovered in their mail this month, property values across the region are soaring. This leaves fire stations in a dilemma. There are more people who need more fire and emergency services, but property values rising discourages voters to approve levies necessary to support such an increase.
“Before we have the problems that we’re seeing occur across the county line … perhaps we can get the message out where there’s a better understanding and even more involvement,” Kytta said, later adding, “We’d like to have a civil opportunity to make the case. Share with (the public) what the goals are, what the plans are, what we’ve been doing with the money that we have.”
Kytta described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “fog” that disconnected residents from an understanding of their own communities.
When the fog lifted, responders looked at their service areas like a young cousin at a family reunion. Lewis County is undergoing a growth spurt.
Formed in 2008 as a combination of the City of Centralia’s fire department and Lewis County Fire District 12, Riverside Fire Authority serves 184 square miles that house about one-third of the county’s population. As of earlier this week, the agency had responded to 4,278 total calls in 2022, with 77.82% of those falling in the “rescue and emergency” category, according to a report provided by Kytta. Around 42% of calls overlapped with others, a number the authority tracks as a measure of need for both the community and the agency.
But the growth has affected more rural districts as well, including Lewis County Fire District 13 in Boistfort, which Battalion Chief Gregg Peterson said responds to about one hundred calls per year in its area while doing mutual aid with other stations.
“The growth is everywhere, percentage-wise. Certainly, we’re not going to have the number of houses out in the Boistfort Valley that are here (in Centralia), but we’ve seen a lot,” Peterson said.
From his volunteer role for Boistfort and as president of the Lewis County Fire Chiefs Association, Peterson said fire and EMS locally have an uphill battle to serve their districts as they once did. Kytta agreed.
The first hurdle for the chiefs is opening up a conversation with the public and getting folks to listen. Misunderstandings about the levy process only hurt a fire district’s chances of passing one.
“I live here, too,” Kytta said. “I got my card in the mail and I saw the 21% increase in the assessed values, and it is implied that all of those agencies and services that collect taxes in there get a 21% bump-up. And that’s just simply not true.”
Because of state law passed in 2001, taxing districts, including fire districts, have a choice every year to increase their budget by 1% — meaning they’ll collect 1% more than the year prior — or to “bank” that money, thereby setting it aside for a later date. Those yearly budgets of revenue from property taxes get collected by the assessor, who doles them out appropriately.
Total assessed value in a community multiplied by the taxing rate equals the revenue from property taxes. Because of the 1% cap and the fact most Lewis County residents live in about six taxing districts, taxes usually increase by 8-10% each year, said Lewis County Assessor Dianne Dorey. This process is described in greater detail in the Thursday, Dec. 1 edition of The Chronicle or on chronline.com.
“So if we were to, say, collect $100,000 in 2022, we would be eligible to take $101,000 in 2023. Although the assessed values went up, the levy rates for the fire department did not go up,” said Peterson. “It will just go up to what makes one $1,000 more in 2023 than 2022.”
A district can also go out for grants, which is one of the ways Kytta said Riverside stayed afloat after the closure of TransAlta’s Centralia Coal Mine in 2013, which increased the load of property taxes on residents. But, he added, grants are more available for departments with “a story” comparable to the loss of a mine that affected an entire community, whereas inflation affects all departments.
This year in the U.S. saw an 8% inflation rate, Peterson said.
“We get 1% more dollars to pay for that 8% inflation rate, basically, is what it boils down to,” he said.
When voters passed Initiative 747 in 2001, permitting districts a budget increase of only 1% per year from property taxes, proponents said it increased the public’s involvement in the decision-making process.
“(The idea was), if you have greater need than what you can get the 1% to cover, ask it. Put it out in front of us, put it together and ask for approval,” Kytta said. “The tone and the environment that we’re living in today, we are trying to live within our means. When we do have those special needs, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, which is ask. We’re looking for a civil discourse and we’re struggling to get that.”
Peterson added that in its around 70 years of service, Napavine’s Lewis County Fire District 5 has passed one levy. To continue to serve their community, he said, District 5 and others have to close and sell stations, use aging equipment, find more volunteers and/or lay-off firefighters.
“Do I like paying taxes? Not really. But I understand that there are a lot of things that I need, and I recognize that if I don’t pay for my fire department to be available for me, then I will likely write the same-sized check to my insurance company that says, ‘Oh, we see nobody’s responding to your fires,’” Peterson said. “I need to make those investments in my community.”
The two chiefs said they appreciated Initiative 747 and believed it was valuable to keep government accountable as good stewards of tax dollars. What they disliked, however, was being “lumped in” with parts of government that are not life-saving, Kytta said.
Looking at West Thurston Fire Authority’s closures, Kytta said, “Somewhere, some way, somebody is going to be suffering. I’m just absolutely certain of it. That’s what motivated starting to talk about it.”
The changes are upon this community, he said. The time to start engaging with the public about their planning process and budgeting is not 15 years down the road when the fire district has an emergency and needs to replace a decades-old firetruck. The time, he said, is now.
For More Information on Property Taxes
Dorey has been invited to join the next episode of The Chronicle’s podcast, “NewsDump,” where she will address property taxes and other subjects. Episodes are posted at https://www.chronline.com/podcasts.
On the county’s website, at https://lewiscountywa.gov, under “Offices > Assessor > Property Tax Levy Information” there is information about the levy rates throughout Lewis County broken down by years.