Fire district taxes going up

By Meg Olson

For the first time in four years Point Roberts fire commissioners have voted to increase taxes to build reserves and prepare for capital expenses needed over the next 10 years.

At their November 10 meeting, commissioners were presented with five levy options for 2016, from no increase to taking the maximum they are legally allowed.

Because the district has not taken the annual 1 percent levy increase allowed by law for four years, they have “banked capacity,” giving it the ability to levy those taxes now as needed, up to 3.7 percent, which would add $19,921 to the $537,320 2015 levy.

Until 1986, taxing districts either had to take the maximum increase allowed or lose that levy capacity. The state introduced the idea of “banking capacity” so taxing districts would only take what they needed when they needed it, without being penalized.

The district’s 2016 budget of $549,294 is up approximately $12,000 from 2015, due to costs for an improved communications system and an anticipated state audit that is projected to cost the district $9,500.

Looking at a 10-year capital expense projection of $1.3 million, commissioners Stan Riffle and Bill Meursing were in favor of taking the maximum to build reserves rapidly. “I think we should keep up,” Riffle said. “It always hurts deep farther down the road.”

Commissioner Jeff Wilmot was in favor of a more modest increase, taking only 2 percent or $10,746, pointing out that the department had $700,000 in various accounts.

Fire chief Christopher Carleton said that figure could be misleading, as approximately $500,000 of that represented current budgeted amounts plus capital reserves the department needs to run for at least six months without additional revenue.

“We have to make sure the department remains viable in case of a catastrophic event,” he said. “So we don’t have $700,000 to buy things with. Maybe $200,000.”

The 10-year capital expense list includes replacing four vehicles, including a fire engine and ambulance. A more pressing need, Carleton said, is replacing the self-contained breathing apparatus firefighters use in a fire.

Carleton said he is hopeful the department will be awarded a grant to pay for the projected $180,000 needed to replace the units, but the department needed to be prepared in case that didn’t happen.

Asked by commissioners for his opinion on where to set the levy, Carleton agreed with Wilmot that a more modest increase this year would be best, with an eye on using the rest of the banked capacity later. “We can spread it out,” he said.

A 2 percent increase would mean the district would be projected to collect enough revenue next year to cover its 2016 budget and have $19,472 left over.

“That’s the minimum that would go into reserves,” Carleton said. “If I can save more, I will.”

Commissioners unanimously approved resolutions authorizing the 2 percent increase in the levy and adopting the 2016 budget.

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