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Three Spokane County fire levies ahead after first vote count; one headed to defeat

Spokane Valley Fire Station
Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
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The Spokane Valley fire measure would authorize the department to increase its property tax levy from about a dollar per thousand of assessed valuation to $1.50, the max allowed.

Patrons in Spokane Valley and Districts 3 and 4 vote to tax themselves for fire and emergency medical services.

Three of the four fire district levies on Tuesday’s Spokane County ballot are apparently on their way to victory. The other is going down to defeat.

It looks like the fire agencies protecting Spokane Valley, the northern (District 4) and southwestern parts of the county (District 3) will continue to receive taxpayer help to provide fire suppression and emergency medical services. District 4’s measure received about two-thirds support. The other two are in the 54% range.

At the Spokane Valley Fire Department, Chief Frank Soto, Jr. says his agency has fallen behind over the year in its permanent property tax collections. State law limits agencies to 1% annual increases without public approval. He says that means the department has become increasingly dependent on a second, temporary property tax source approved by voters every few years.

“We are in a very dangerous position. We are heavily dependent on the non-permanent special levy that requires a supermajority vote every four years. If the public says we don’t want to pay for that anymore and it doesn’t pass, then you’ve just wiped out 60% of the fire department," Soto, Jr. said.

He says the August ballot measure will allow the department to, in his words, “rebalance” its funding stream and put more of its funding in the permanent tax levy bucket.

The outlier among the districts seeking voter approval on Tuesday is in Newman Lake, where the question centered around whether District 13 should move from an all-volunteer force to a combination of professional and volunteer. 62% of voters said no to a measure that would have increased property taxes to allow that transition to happen.

The tax measures come at a time when inflation is running at 40-year highs and property assessments have driven up property taxes by double digits in many parts of the county.

With those in mind, Newman Lake Chief Stan Cooke said before the election his agency's ask was a tough sell.

“We’re in a tight spot right now economically and so there’s still a lot of questions about where’s the bottom, what’s going to happen politically to get things turned around," he said.

But Cooke says an all-volunteer approach is no longer working at Newman Lake because the number of trained amateur firefighters willing to serve continues to fall and many of those who are still serving are 50 or older.

Unless the people of the district are willing to provide the money necessary to fire two new full-time firefighters and create its own fire training program, he says the district will continue to limp along. He expects the district to tread water for awhile and perhaps come back later with a smaller tax increase proposal.