BATTLE GROUND — North county residents are a step closer to voting in February on whether Battle Ground should be annexed into Fire District 3, as Battle Ground city councilors moved to put the measure on the ballot.
The same measure will be voted on by Fire District 3 commissioners in the coming weeks, as the vote will be open to Battle Ground residents, as well as those who live in Fire District 3’s coverage area, which includes Battle Ground, Hockinson, Brush Prairie and Venersborg. If Fire District 3 commissioners vote for the measure, it will officially end up on the February ballot.
At Monday’s city council meeting, Fire Chief Scott Sorenson said the district covers about 90 square miles and roughly 40,000 people, half from Battle Ground and half from the other coverage areas.
“The issue we have in the city is volume and the growth we’ve experienced,” he said.
Currently, Station 35 is staffed 24/7 and is located in the center of the city geographically at 505 S.W. First St., but its placement and size aren’t best for the demands of the growing city.
Sorenson said officials are looking on the west side and east side to build a new station, and at Monday’s meeting, he said growth means the district needs more than one crew on duty 24 hours a day.
Battle Ground is the only city in Clark County to contract out for fire service. It was served by Clark County Fire & Rescue until 2016 before switching to Clark County Fire District 3. City Manager Erin Erdman has said the city had hoped to form a relationship between the city and district with hopes Battle Ground could annex in later.
Battle Ground officials also hope annexation will help solve problems paying for a fire contract. Battle Ground uses 21 percent of its general fund to pay for the contract with Fire District 3, which amounted to roughly $3 million this year. If the city is annexed into the district, fire and emergency services would be paid by taxpayers through a separate fire levy.
According to information from the fire district, the current contract for fire services accounts for $1.35 of the city’s property tax levy, which is $1.37 per $1,000 of assessed property value. At the current rate, the district estimates increased call volume in the city would cause the fire services contract to exceed the city’s general property tax levy in 2021.
At Monday’s council meeting, Erdman said the project general fund deficit in 2021 without the annexation would be roughly $800,000.
Money from the general fund also goes to police, street maintenance, parks and recreation, and community development. Erdman said freeing up general fund revenues currently going to fire services could help boost money for park maintenance and irrigation, beautification efforts and street maintenance and preservation.
That last one is key, Erdman said, because Initiative 976, which is on the November ballot, would cap annual vehicle licensing fees at $30 for vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less and eliminate additional licensing fees collected by 61 cities in Washington. Battle Ground is one of those cities; it collects $290,000 annually from its license fee.
At the meeting, Battle Ground Police Chief Bob Richardson said his agency has seen cuts and is operating as a “bare bones organization.” He worries that if general fund money continues to be used for fire services, it could make things more difficult for his agency.
“The way we do policing in this city will change drastically,” he said.
For Fire District 3, the annexation would give the agency more control over emergency services in Battle Ground. It would also allow for Battle Ground residents to vote for Fire District 3 bonds, levies and commissioners, and run for seats on the commission, Erdman said.
The annexation will add a fire levy onto taxes for Battle Ground residents.
According to the city’s projections, the city’s property tax in 2021 could be $1.27 per $1,000 of assessed property value, down from $1.37 this year. The fire levy is projected to be $1.30 per $1,000 in 2021, down from the $1.35 coming from the general fund this year.
To help taxpayers with the new fire levy, city councilors voted in August to reduce the city’s utility tax rate should the annexation pass. The utility tax rate will drop from 22 percent to 12 percent, which city officials say will cut residents’ utility tax by 46 percent total.
During a presentation at Monday’s council meeting, city officials looked at what this all meant for a home valued at $310,000 with average use of utilities, and said that homeowner would be paying $275 more in taxes in 2021 with the fire annexation.