Tuesday, January 21, 2020
The formation of a unified fire district in western Washington County would have implications for service and taxes.
Five fire agencies in western Washington County are one step closer to becoming a single fire district after a series of meetings this winter.
A task force comprised of representatives from rural fire districts in the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston areas, as well as city fire departments in Forest Grove and Cornelius, has been evaluating alternative governing structures for the area’s fire services since fall 2018.
The task force recently received approval from all five agencies to pursue forming a single fire district. Elected officials from each of the five agencies would still have to vote to put a single fire district on the ballot, and voters would have to pass the ballot measure to become part of the fire district.
But officials say receiving approval to pursue a unified fire district is a major step toward improving the way people receive fire services. If elected officials and voters create a fire district, it will also change how residents living in different areas pay for fire services.
Michael Kinkade serves as chief of the Forest Grove and Cornelius city fire departments, as well as the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston rural fire protection districts. He originally started with Forest Grove, but after Cornelius’ fire chief retired in 2010, he took over that role as well. He added Gaston to his portfolio in 2015.
For years, Kinkade has said the governing model is not tenable, and that some kind of merger between the five agencies is inevitable.
Kinkade creates annual budgets for each agency — five in total — working with 27 elected officials. He also negotiates their labor union contracts separately.
Additionally, Kinkade oversees the training and certification of volunteers as well as the stationing of personnel and fire assets separately for each agency. “It’s extremely complex,” Kinkade said, adding that he has only been able to manage it because his responsibilities increased gradually over time. “If had asked me to come in here and do this when I got hired as a fire chief, I would have failed miserably.”
He said although he has shown that the five fire agencies can work together, the current model “is not sustainable.” It was a big deal to Kinkade when the city of Forest Grove, the final partner in the proposed fire district to hear the results of the fire task force’s research into different governing models, gave its approval to pursue creating a fire district, he said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s finally bearing fruit,” Kinkade said.
A single fire district would have an independent governing body, with an elected board of directors. It would have unified taxing and bonding authority for capital projects and investments. Personnel could be transferred fluidly from one fire station to another. Equipment and medical materials could be purchased collectively, and there would be one union contract.
Kinkade said the simplification of personnel allocation would improve service. He added consolidating administrative tasks would save staff time, which would bring down overall costs. “Time is money,” Kinkade said.
The alternative governing model evaluated by the task force was a fire authority. Although a fire authority would also create a single board of directors and personnel would be able to be transferred between stations based on need, it wouldn’t dissolve the five separate fire agencies. That means it wouldn’t have unified taxing authority and it couldn’t levy for operations or bond for capital projects.
“For a fire authority, the only reason you do it is a demonstration project to show that you can work together,” Kinkade said. “We’re already doing that.”
After members of the fire task force evaluated each governing model, working with their separate boards, the task force concluded the fire district model would be better than both the fire authority and the status quo.
Members of the task force used a scoring matrix based on five foundational principles of fire services to rate their preferences for each governing model.
With the scoring system, task force members said all three governing models would equally serve the principles of professionalism and local governance and identity. Differences appeared when it came to principles of operational effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. The fire district consistently scored higher for those principles than the fire authority or the status quo.
Kinkade acknowledged that although creating a fire district would be more effective and save costs overall, it would restructure how people are taxed for fire services. Currently, people living in Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston all pay different tax rates based on their assessed property value for fire services. Under a fire district, everyone would pay the same rate.
Kinkade said people should expect an evening-out of the cost burden. People served by the city fire departments in Forest Grove and Cornelius can expect a decrease in their taxes if a unified district is formed, while people served by the three rural fire districts can expect an increase, he said.
In 2018, a household in Forest Grove with the average assessed property value for that city would have paid $610 for fire services, according to estimates by Rob Massar, a third-party consultant for the task force. In Cornelius, the average household would have paid $550. People served by rural fire districts in Cornelius, Forest Grove and Gaston would have paid $305, $345 and 475, respectively.
Massar estimated that a household with the average assessed property value for the entire area served by the fire district would pay $550 if the fire district formed.
Kinkade said the trade-off for those rural residents would be that they receive more stable, efficient fire services.
Michael Pedemonte, chair of both the Gaston Rural Fire Protection District and the fire task force, said he agrees with Kinkade that the trade-off is worth it. “There would be some changes, and maybe Forest Grove would have a bit of a decrease and we’d have a bit of an increase,” Pedemonte said. “The benefit is we’ll increase our level of service, increase our level of care, decrease our response times. I think probably the most important thing is a sustainable model that the district could function off of.”
The legal framework of how the district would operate, its tax rate and how the board of directors would look all still has to be determined before any votes are cast, Pedemonte said.
How representatives on the board are distributed will be a key issue for elected officials to work out, Kinkade said.
Population centers such as Forest Grove would have greater voting power if the entire district voted for every board member. But the board could be set up to have a set number of members from the district’s three regions. Residents in those regions would be the only ones voting for their representatives.
Additionally, officials haven’t determined the conditions of a ballot measure to create the new district.
People living in areas served by each of the five existing agencies would separately have to pass the measure to become part of the new district, Kinkade said.
Voters in the cities of Forest Grove and Cornelius would need to pass the measure for the new district to be viable, he said. That’s because they make up the majority of the tax base for the district’s potential geographic area.
But officials still have to decide whether or not the new district would be formed without approval from each of the five areas, Kinkade said.
Areas that did not approve the measure, in that case, would have to contract with the new district for fire services, he said.
“There’s still a lot that needs to be worked out,” Pedemonte said.