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Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 2:00 a.m.

Fire authority could affect taxes

A regional fire authority in south Snohomish County wouldn't just change the name of the fire trucks rolling up to an emergency.

It would alter the way property taxes are drawn, and how cities budget for services.

We're talking millions of dollars a year. It's worth paying attention.

Seven cities and two fire districts have been discussing forming a regional fire authority to serve most of the area between Everett and the King County line.

{If you need to catch up, see this Need To Know.}

If voters approve a fire authority in south county, it would create a separate government body with its own jurisdiction to levy taxes and provide firefighting and emergency medical services. The vote could be as early as 2013.

If the fire authority is formed and everyone joins -- which is not guaranteed -- cities in south county wouldn't need taxes to pay for fire service anymore. It would be out of their hands, and their budgets.

So, if the fire authority comes into being, would cities lower their taxes? If not, what would they do with the millions they'd no longer spend on firefighters, training and equipment? (Or for some, on fire service contracts.)

Taxes are confusing and complicated, and vary for different kinds of fire protection agencies. Here's a basic breakdown:

Incorporated cities and county government draw property and other taxes to provide services such as road maintenance, public works and police. Fire districts draw money to provide fire and emergency medical service.

If a regional fire authority was formed, theoretically, cities could keep drawing the same amount of money, and use the money they formerly spent on fire service elsewhere. That likely would mean more taxes for property owners, because they'd get billed for fire service on top of the old city tax.

Don't think that could happen? Find a city these days that isn't struggling to pay the bills.

Many homes in south Snohomish County lie in a mishmash of taxing agencies. There are all sorts of rules, implications and limitations about who taxes and how much.

So I asked Chris Huyboom, levy comptroller with the Snohomish County Assessor's Office, for help understanding. As part of his job, he makes sure that levies follow the statutes.

State law limits the rate at which any property can be taxed, regardless of what all government agencies tax there. So if a regional fire authority was formed, and it drew a tax, cities could be forced to reduce their rate to make sure property owners weren't being asked to pay more taxes than the law allows.

Nothing says cities have to cut taxes by the exact amount they used to spend on fire service, or the exact amount the fire authority would be taxing.

Regional fire authorities also can have a separate "special assessment" or "benefit charge," which also is complicated. That would be regulated by another branch of county government than the assessor's office.

It won't all shake out for a year or two. It will be interesting, either way.
Story tags » PoliticsFirefightingLawsTaxesSnohomish County

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