PORT TOWNSEND — Regardless of whether or not a ballot measure proposing a merger between Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue and East Jefferson Fire Rescue passes on Nov. 8, voters in both districts will be asked three months later to approve a levy lid lift.
The levy lid lift is needed to generate revenue that officials say is badly needed for long-delayed maintenance, equipment upgrades and staffing.
“Both districts have been budgeting more expenditures than revenue for a while and then trying to postpone expenses or capital expenses to try to close that gap,” said Bret Black, who is fire chief of both districts.
“We’ve been spending reserves and holding off on buying desperately needed equipment,” he added.
“We had two ambulances budgeted this year. We only bought one. And that pattern in both agencies has kind of just continued for years past.”
The districts’ goal is to have an initiative seeking the levy lid lift on the Feb. 14 special election ballot.
Under state law, fire departments are considered junior taxing districts and subject to an annual 1 percent levy limit (the “lid”) on assessed property values. Any increase (or “lift”) above the 1 percent must be approved by voters.
Levy rates for next year are still in the works.
“We are still a ways out on setting levies and determining final levy rates for 2023,” said Jefferson County assessor Jeff Chapman in an email.
However, Chapman estimated the 2023 levy rate for Port Ludlow would be around 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, and for East Jefferson the rate would be about $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed value.
“Both will have EMS (emergency medical services) levies around 36 cents per $1,000,” Chapman said. “If the merger occurs, the boundary will be revised for levies the following year (in 2023 for 2024 tax purposes), and there will be one regular and one EMS levy, each encompassing the entire taxing district.”
The rate the districts ask for a levy lid lift can’t be decided until their 2023 budgets are completed: one for Port Ludlow and one for East Jefferson should the proposed merger fail to pass; and one for a combined district should it be approved.
Once that is done, Black said, “We can really forecast in an objective way what revenue we need going forward, and that is going to be used to make the recommendation to both (fire district) boards for what the levy rate would be.”
Black said the districts have done everything they can to be fiscally responsible, but it has reached a point where they can not continue on the same fiscal path.
“Our revenue does not for either agency meet the needs of our expenditures,” he said. “Even on a break-even level, we are continually having to kick the can on very important projects.”
The fire districts are now in the process of managing two separate but overlapping messaging campaigns: the merger and the levy.
The decision to ask Port Ludlow voters to merge the Port Ludlow fire district into East Jefferson was driven by fiscal concerns. Consolidating administrative operations, firefighting personnel, equipment, training and other systems is a way to maximize the strengths of both districts to meet emergency needs, Black has said.
Although the smaller district in terms of size — serving about 5,000 people in an area covering about 55 square miles — Port Ludlow has experienced a much greater increase in demand for services than East Jefferson, recording an 18 percent jump in 911 calls over last year.
There is very little redundancy between the two fire districts, Black said. The one element the two share is inadequate resources due to lack of funding.
The districts have been operating under an interlocal agreement that was extended to May 23, 2023, should voters turn down the merger. According to state law, a simple majority of voters in the merging district — Port Ludlow — need to approve the merger.
But, Black said, a merger will not solve the districts’ financial problems.
“We’re trying to budget for an upgrade in our heating system at one of the stations that was built like 50 years ago, but we can’t pay for it right now,” he said.
“Those are the things that we’re hoping, in combination with the merger and potential levy lift, that we can actually put on the calendar and say we can fund it on this date when we have predictable revenue that’s not in the red.”
Port Ludlow Fire District held the first of five online informational meetings Tuesday to answer questions about the proposed merger and will hold three in-person meetings at 9:30 a.m. Monday, 4 p.m. Tuesday and 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Olympic Room at the Resort at Port Ludlow, 1 Heron Road.
Black and other district officials will be available for questions.
Online informational meetings are set for 4 p.m. Oct. 13, 6 p.m. Oct. 20, 6 p.m. Oct. 25 and 4 p.m. Nov. 1.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.