Historically, fire protection districts in Washington have received almost all their funding through property taxes. Fire districts are “Junior” taxing districts and are allowed by law to receive property taxes at a maximum rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of the assessed valuation of real property within their boundaries.
In some instances much of the potential to levy taxes may be taken away by other taxing districts such as hospitals and roads that have priority over the available tax amount. This system seemed to work fairly well until fire districts were placed in the position of meeting the more urban needs of their citizens, as opposed to the exclusively rural operations that prevailed when the tax laws were originally written.
In recognition of the need for fire districts to have a more flexible and secure method of funding, the Washington State Legislature, under RCW 52.18.030, allows fire districts to use what is termed a “Benefit Charge” method of funding. However, the use of this funding method must be voter approved and is limited in duration for a maximum of six years, although it can be re-authorized.
There are a number of important things about this method of funding: A district using the benefit charge method of funding is limited to a maximum of $1.00/$1,000 in property taxes (a $.50/$1,000 reduction). The funds received from a benefit charge cannot exceed 60% of a district’s total operational budget. A benefit charge must be fairly apportioned in the district. A public hearing must be held annually establishing the following year’s benefit charge. All property owners in the district must be advised of the benefit charge and given the right to appeal the amount of their charge.
The voters of Fire District 40 authorized the use of the benefit charge in an election held in 1990. The citizens re-authorized the use of the benefit charge in 1995, 2001, 2007, 2013 and 2019 (good through 2025).
Although State law allows the benefit charge to be up to 60% of the fire district’s operational budget, the chart (above right) shows that the district’s Board of Fire Commissioners has stayed well below that amount, with an average for the past ten (10) years of 40.3%.
Questions & Answers
One of the features of the benefit charge method of funding, not available when solely using property taxes, is the ability of the local district to reduce the amount of the benefit charge (credit) to property owners for having specific fire systems in place. Property owners in Fire District 40 can reduce their benefit charge amount by having either monitored fire sprinkler and/or smoke detector systems. Additionally, senior citizen’s reductions that apply to property taxes also apply to the benefit charge.
The Board of Fire Commissioners has supported the use of the benefit charge to allow the fire district to seek stable and reliable funding at the local level. As statewide taxing laws seem to change yearly, the fire district is more readily able to predictably meet the needs of the citizens. The ability to respond quickly to the loss of revenues (as demonstrated in the 1998 failed EMS levy) is one of the positive factors in this funding method. Another attribute is that the benefit charge is locally controlled and set to meet local needs.
Should you have any specific questions, please call Fire District 40 at (425) 255-0931 to arrange for someone to contact you.