Pre-annexation agreement to be before council next year

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend City Council has directed city staff to begin negotiating a pre-annexation memorandum that would change the governance and taxing structure in the current interlocal agreement between the city and East Jefferson Fire-Rescue.

The council unanimously approved moving forward with the process Monday, and City Manager David Timmons is expected to bring a preliminary agreement to the council in January.

A levy to support annexation is expected to be on the August ballot.

Currently, East Jefferson Fire-Rescue (EJFR) District 1 provides all fire and emergency medical services (EMS) to the city of Port Townsend and owns all the fire stations, including the station in uptown Port Townsend. It also employs all fire and EMS personnel.

“We’ve functionally consolidated already,” Timmons said at Monday’s City Council meeting.

This has been the case since 2007, when the city and EJFR entered into an interlocal agreement that merged fire districts 1 and 6 into what is now just Fire District 1.

District 1 extends from Port Townsend down to state Highway 104 with Fire District 5, Discovery Bay, to the west; District 2, Quilcene Fire Rescue, to the south; and District 3, Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue, to the east.

City residents and district residents see the same level of service, according to Bill Beezley, communications manager for EJFR.

“While there is a line between the city and the district, in our day-to-day service, we don’t see that line,” Beezley said. “It’s seamless.”

However, EJFR is funded through two different taxing districts: Port Townsend and the rest of District 1, or residents living outside of the Port Townsend city limits. According to Beezley, the process is overly complicated for both payment and voting.

Currently, city residents pay into the city’s general obligation fund, part of which is dedicated to paying for fire and EMS services. Those funds are then transferred to the county, which pays EJFR.

District residents pay funds straight to the county, which then transfers funds to EJFR.

“We see having two different budget structures as a downside,” Beezley said.

There also are two voting districts: the city and district. That has caused issues in the past when the two voting districts didn’t agree.

According to Beezley, in 2010, the district voted for a levy lid lift. While city residents rejected it, the city was forced to pay the difference anyway and eventually approved the same levy lift in 2012.

“It’s just a hairball trying to get everything all level and accurate,” Beezley said. “If we just came together, it would be a lot easier.”

City residents also don’t have true representation on the Fire District 1 board. While three county commissioners sit in on board meetings, they don’t have voting power on policy issues or basic decisions such as the hiring of a new fire chief.

“Because we have goodwill on the board. I’m sure those City Council members feel they have a say, but technically they don’t,” Beezley said. “We feel it would be better for the city citizens to fix this strange governance model.”

Annexation would combine the voting and taxing district into one district and would add two city representatives to the current three-person fire district board.

However, doing this would require a one-time levy, which could mean high property taxes for residents in Port Townsend.

Currently, funds for both district residents and city residents are set by a property tax levy, which is similar for both district and city residents because the population sizes are similar — roughly 10,000 people in the city and 11,000 people in the district, according to Beezley.

City residents also make up just over 50 percent of all EJFR calls.

However, after the recession, when property values fell, the levy rates for the city and district have seen a slight variation because property values in Port Townsend have climbed a little faster than values in the district.

Annexation would require a one-time levy rate reset to even out the levy rates for the city and district, which would mean a one-time rate increase for residents of Port Townsend.

The city and EJFR aim to put this measure on the August 2018 ballot to allow time to host public meetings to tell the public about the annexation and the complicated property taxes that fund EJFR.

Both district and city voters have to approve the annexation. If passed, it would be implemented in 2020.

Beezley said EJFR is “cautiously optimistic” that annexation would pass in the district since it is revenue-neutral for district voters. Beezley added that this is the best time to attempt a move like this since the city and district levy rates are still very similar.

“No time is perfect, but we think this is as close as we’re going to get,” Beezley said.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at cmcfarland@peninsuladailynews.com.

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