Fire and Water
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
FIRE AND WATER: Whatcom County Fire District 8 and City of Bellingham officials met briefly this week. The Lake Whatcom Policy Group, the governing agencies for that municipal reservoir formed chiefly of Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham, also met this week. And though one topic was fire and the other was water, each group learned independently that their efforts suffer financially from a similar cause.
Financial analysts have for some time understood that Washington state’s creaky revenue structures, many of these dating back to the 1930s, are slowly breaking down. There are multiple factors and root causes—the downward pressure of unfunded mandates by state and federal legislatures; the divestment and decline of state and local governments in funding public infrastructure and capital facilities; revenues lost in the Recession of 2007-08 were not replaced; and perhaps most perniciously through time, a series of caps and lids (many imposed by voter initiatives) that limit tax revenues to the rate of inflation but that are insufficient to keep pace with population growth or expected levels of service. Republicans as a party set out some decades ago to suffocate the public sector, and—make no mistake—that is what is occurring.
When it comes to fire and water capacity, though, the public likes a little government.
In 2016, the City of Bellingham sought professional analysis on factors that were chewing into the city’s financial reserve and general operating fund. City leaders learned to their dismay that projections indicated fund reserve balances would be depleted in five years, and the city would therefore have to begin to cut back on levels of service.
A couple of instruments might serve to provide tax revenue for special purpose and ease the pressure on the city’s general operating fund.
One is the transportation benefit district, a two-tenths of one percent sales tax approved by Bellingham voters in 2010 to shore up transit services and nonmotorized transportation alternatives.
Another instrument is the formation of a regional fire authority (RFA), the topic of early discussion this week between Fire District 8 [Marietta] and the City of Bellingham. The formation of a planning committee is the first official step for the two organizations to start the planning process, according to Bill Hewett, Bellingham assistant fire chief.
A regional fire authority is a special-purpose district established by voters in a service area that provides funding for fire and emergency medical services. The RFA can be made up of cities, fire districts or a combination of the two. District boundaries are expandable in the event the model is successful and other fire districts want to join. The district is governed by an independent elected board.
The planning committee will meet regularly over the next several months to determine the feasibility of a regional fire protection authority and develop a service plan, Hewett said. This plan would outline what fire services should be provided, how the RFA should be governed, and how the RFA should be funded. If a plan is developed, it would be submitted to the full City Council and Board of Fire Commissioners for consideration to be placed on a future ballot for the voters to approve.
The advantages are not only related to dedicated funding, but the operational efficiencies that would arrive from consolidating the fiefdoms of multiple fire districts into a coherent whole.
“Our hope is an RFA would be seamless for citizens, and they can enjoy the levels of service they always have,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville explained. “For the city financially, it would mean that a general fund department would now have a dedicated fund and an independent administrative body, which the city would be part of so we can continue to advocate and influence on behalf of excellent service.
“Every fire chief I’ve worked with has talked about an RFA,” Linville said. “And they’ve talked about it being countywide, and I found the idea of a dedicated funding source for a vital service appealing. I also thought that it might be unattainable when we look at how difficult it was to get emergency medical services (EMS) integrated countywide.
“Our first effort has to be the feasibility of the idea—what does the commitment mean financially, what does it means in terms of the levels of service provided?” Linville explained. “And then if we think it is feasible, how do we proceed?
“We decided to first explore the issue with District 8, but that district covers quit an extensive bit of property,” she said. “It is not a small district in the area they cover. And we’ve been very transparent in our invitation to other districts to sit in and see how we go about doing this.”
A problem of fire is analogous to one of water, as the Lake Whatcom Policy Group learned this week.
County Council approval of a Water Action Plan for Lake Whatcom in 2014—a series of capital improvements for stormwater and remediations for pollutants entering the reservoir—saw tremendous output in 2017 as many of these projects have come on line. Yet the’ve had the effect (understood at the time the 2014 plan was adopted) of drawing down and threatening exhaustion of the fund that pays for them.
It’s a topic for another column, but it suggests an analogous instrument like the RFA, a special-purpose taxing district to help finance the understood commitment to restoring a water supply for half the county’s population.
We’ll offer another solution, too: Stop electing into office an ideology committed to suffocating government at the state and federal levels, so those governments and their revenue capacities may better assist at the local level for things like fire and water.