The idea of a regional fire authority is dead.
In a 6-1 vote Tuesday, the Yakima City Council rejected efforts to establish a fire authority, which would be a taxing district, with Union Gap and two fire districts.
The authority would have been a single department governed by an elected group of commissioners. Officials in Yakima, Union Gap and Fire Districts 10 and 11 were considering forming such an organization.
The proposal was favored by Yakima Fire Chief David Willson, and the city spent two years conducting a feasibility study. But council members said after the vote they didn’t believe the proposal would have enough voter support to move forward.
Voters in the proposed district would have had to approve new property taxes by a simple majority or a fire authority benefit charge with more than 60 percent of the vote.
But Councilman Rick Ensey said new taxes would have increased the cost of service to residents without offering much change in what they get.
“It essentially maintains the status quo,” Ensey said in a telephone interview.
The concept of a regional fire authority was approved by the Legislature in 2004. There are six in the state, all on the west side of the Cascades. Proponents argue the autonomous departments have greater efficiency and depth of resources to serve a large area.
The report submitted by Willson said there would be an increased cost to residents and businesses from a benefit charge, which would be levied depending on how much a property benefits from the fire department. Those costs could be offset with projected budget savings in Yakima and Union Gap.
State law would also require a city to lower property taxes in an area where the taxes increase under a regional fire authority benefit charge. Residents would see anywhere from $75 in total annual benefit charges for an 850-square-foot property to $806 annually for a 19,500-square-foot residential property.
That would be revenue the city of Yakima would no longer collect annually. However, because the city would no longer be funding a fire department, it would be left with an excess balance of $4 million. Union Gap would have an excess balance of $713,673, according to the report.
Willson did not return calls for comment.
Council member Maureen Adkison was the lone vote of confidence in the regional fire authority,
“I thought, and I still believe this, that it’s a real public safety issue,” she said.
Adkison said the creation of a regional fire authority would address a growing public safety concern caused by the city’s budget shortage. She said year-to-year the council doesn’t know how much money the Yakima Fire Department will receive, but a separate taxing district would create more stability.
“It’s something we have to keep an eye on, especially as the city grows,” Adkison said.
Mayor Micah Cawley said he didn’t sense much enthusiasm for the proposal from Union Gap officials, and that it also didn’t include enough departments to be effective.
“If we go down this road again, we should have West Valley (Fire Department) at the table,” Cawley said.
Adkison said the city contacted the West Valley department about the proposal, but received little interest. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if the proposal is revisited in a few years, especially if other departments begin to show interest.
“If at some point we can reach out to the other communities, or they reach out to us, we’ll see it back,” Adkison said.
The city also received its decennial fire protection evaluation from the state Surveying and Rating Bureau, which applies to dwellings and commercial properties. Yakima received a four out of 10, with a rating of one considered to be the best prepared for fire events and 10 to be the worst.
Council members said they asked the Yakima Fire Department to look into education and training programs that could improve the city’s rating.
The council also approved a measure to reduce the number of fire engines sent to respond to reports of suspected structure fires. In such instances the city will only send three, as opposed to five, when responding to unconfirmed fire-related emergency calls.
“If there’s clearly a fire, we’re still going to send all of our resources to put that out,” Cawley said. “It’s just about saving resources and being more efficient.”