City leaders want to annex into Clark County Fire District 3 to free up funding for other services
BATTLE GROUND — NOTE: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect levy rates for Fire District 3.
The voters of Battle Ground will get to decide the future of fire coverage for their city next year, despite the fact many of them apparently aren’t sure what the current situation actually is.
Since 2016, the city of Battle Ground has contracted with Clark County Fire District 3 to provide emergency services at a cost of around $3 million per year. Currently, that comes out of the city’s budget. Now, the city is considering annexing into Fire District 3.
While that would free up money currently coming out of city funds to pay Fire District 3, it could mean a potential tax increase. Currently the city pays Fire District 3 directly at a levy rate of $1.35 per $1,000 of assessed value. That is actually lower than the $1.50 per $1,000 the city paid when contracting with Clark County Fire and Rescue, and lower than FD3’s previous rate of $1.42. Levy rates have decreased as property values go up, since they are assessed to raise a set amount of revenue.
It is too early to gauge what levy rates might be if voters approve the annexation, but Battle Ground spokeswoman Bonnie Gilberti says they anticipate rates will decrease slightly over that time.
The city recently mailed over 6,000 surveys to residents in order to gauge the odds of annexation being approved. They received nearly 500 responses, with 39 percent saying they were unsure of the idea, 33 percent viewing it favorably, and 29 percent negatively.
The goal of annexation would be to free up resources for other city priorities, such as street improvements, parks, and other services. On the survey, 60 percent of respondents said they would prefer to see the city cut costs, versus paying more taxes to provide services. That number went up to 64 percent for people over age 60, and 66 percent for lower income residents.
“What was encouraging, was the fact that the more information people got, the more open minded they were to considering the circumstances and where we’re at as a city and where we’re at with fire protection,” said Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro at a recent meeting with staff and members of the Fire District 3 Board of Directors.
“Without much information, they’ll say no. And that’s going to be the challenge for us,” added Dalesandro. “But the more information we can put out there, and the more opportunities they have to interact with the fire district, I think we’re giving it the best opportunity to succeed.”
Councilor Shane Bowman agreed that the city needs to do a good sales job of letting people know what the annexation into Fire District 3 would give them for the added cost.
“It was seamless when we went from CCFR (Clark County Fire and Rescue) to Fire District 3, and the only people complaining were firefighters, right?” he said. “The community had no clue. Because when they called 9-1-1, a red fire truck showed up and guys got out of it. No one reads the side that says Fire District 3 on it.”
Annexation, Bowman said, could bring representation for Battle Ground on Fire District 3’s board, as well as better fire coverage around town and higher staffing levels. Fire District 3 would also look to potentially build a new fire training site on city-owned land behind Albertson’s grocery store on 20th Avenue.
At this point, council has circled the February 2020 ballot to put the annexation issue in front of voters. While there are concerns over the demographics that generally turn out for early-year elections, which tend to be older and more conservative, there were also worries about losing momentum from the city’s recent Visioning project.
“We have the community’s attention right now,” said Erdman, “as we’ve kind of touched base on the vision that we’ve gotten through, which has indicated that they want to put more funding into land use and transportation and public safety. And if we push this out, then are we losing our ability to leverage that momentum and show that we’re giving some back to focus on things that the community has asked for?”
There are also financial considerations. If the city decided to wait until August or November of next year, the soonest they could take advantage of additional tax revenue would be February of 2022, putting the city in a financial bind. Approval next February would allow collections as soon as January of 2021.
Another consideration is Battle Ground School District, which could decide later this year whether or not to run a new building bond sometime next year, and attempting to avoid what is sure to be a contentious and hotly contested presidential election in November of 2020.
The city also still has to decide exactly what the annexation initiative would look like. They could simply keep taxes as they are, letting residents bear the full burden of the Fire District 3 taxation. The majority of survey respondents said they would prefer to see either a 50-percent city tax reduction to offset the cost of the annexation, or a full tax break for the entire cost along with cuts to other city services.
Council members are hoping to use the Summer festival season to reach out to voters and help educate them about the possible change.
A majority of survey respondents said they believed taxes in Battle Ground were higher than surrounding cities, while just 29 percent said they knew the city remained one of the least expensive in Clark County. That’s an obstacle Dalesandro and Bowman pointed out they need to overcome with education, and also understand that many in Battle Ground simply don’t want to pay more, even if they are currently paying less than they would in Vancouver, Ridgefield, or Camas.
“I mean, I just left upstairs in a meeting and they all just said, ‘don’t you raise our taxes,’ when I left,” said Bowman. “And I said we’re not even talking that.”
On the plus side, the vast majority of survey respondents felt positively about fire services in the city, even if they didn’t realize how it was paid for, and most wanted that level of service to continue. City leaders say it’s their hope they can sell the understanding that annexing into Fire District 3 would allow for the expansion of service levels, and could lead to an expanded board for the district with representation from within Battle Ground, giving the city a greater voice over coverage, and where new stations might be located.