Wednesday, July 15, 2020
July 15, 2020

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Clark County Fire District 3 officials discuss impacts of potential annexation

Voters to decide in special election on Tuesday

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
4 Photos
Clark County Fire District 3 Commissioners Rick Steele, center left, and Scott Anders, center right, listen to residents during an informational meeting about annexation Tuesday night at Station 31 in Brush Prairie.
Clark County Fire District 3 Commissioners Rick Steele, center left, and Scott Anders, center right, listen to residents during an informational meeting about annexation Tuesday night at Station 31 in Brush Prairie. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — Two comments at a recent public information meeting captured the main questions voters have had about the potential annexation of Battle Ground into Clark County Fire District 3’s coverage area.

Jean Connor of Hockinson said the annexation wouldn’t have a big impact on her, but it would have a big financial impact on Battle Ground residents.

Later, she spoke to her own situation.

“I haven’t figured out how all of this benefits me at all,” said Connor, though she added after the informational meeting that she will support annexation.

Battle Ground and Fire District 3 voters will decide on the annexation in two resolutions in Tuesday’s special election, both requiring a simple majority to pass.

As the election approaches, city and fire district officials have fielded numerous questions on the complicated issue. But mainly, Battle Ground residents want to know why they should raise their taxes, and voters in the district wonder what will change for them.

“It’s definitely unique, and I think that’s where a lot of the confusion is coming from. There have been a lot of moving parts,” Battle Ground City Manager Erin Erdman said. “It’s a different scenario for the district and the city.”

Since 2016, Battle Ground has contracted with the fire district, which covers roughly 90 square miles that also includes Hockinson, Venersborg, Heisson and Brush Prairie. At the moment, the district includes 40,000 residents — shared almost evenly between the city and other areas.

The contract expires in 2021, when the annexation would take effect. If annexation is not approved, the city would need to renegotiate a fire services contract with Fire District 3 or another agency.

Currently, Battle Ground property owners pay a property tax to the city, which then pays the fire district to provide services.

The current contract nearly consumes all the city’s property tax revenues, gobbling up to $1.35 of the city’s $1.37 per $1,000 general property tax. By 2021, the contract is expected to exceed the city’s property tax revenue. The city uses 21 percent of its general fund budget to pay the contract, about $3 million last year.

Annexation would require city residents to pay the same levy rate as district residents: $1.30 per $1,000 of assessed value, which would cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $390 per year. To offset part of the cost, the city plans to decrease its utility tax for water, sewer and storm water drainage by 46 percent.

The city hopes to use property tax revenue freed up by annexation to bolster police services — including hiring additional officers and reimplementing a K-9 program for what Battle Ground Police Chief Bob Richardson has called a “bare bones” department. Funds could also go to complete needed maintenance and preservation projects for streets, sidewalks and parks.

“From a city perspective, we’ve fallen behind on a lot of things,” Erdman said. “Our citizens are asking for more service, and we can’t provide that without additional revenue.”

Annexation would also allow voters in Battle Ground to vote on fire commissioners, levies and bonds.

District impacts

Because property owners in the fire district already pay a fire levy, their taxes would not increase with annexation. But they would see impacts.

As call volumes rise, the district must keep two fire crews in the city at night, Clark County Fire District 3 Chief Scott Sorenson said. If the district annexes Battle Ground, it plans to keep Station 32 in Venersborg, which is currently open 12 hours each day, staffed on a 24-hour basis.

The district operates out of five fire stations, including one in Battle Ground — Station 35 at 505 S.W. First St. — and a future station planned south of the city. As Battle Ground and surrounding areas grow, the district is hoping to secure the long-term funding.

“(Battle Ground) kept moving closer to where we are, and who we are, really,” Sorenson said. “Basically, this makes us both stronger if we’re able to come together and help each other out.”

At another recent meeting, Fire District 3 Commissioner Rick Steele explained that emergency service agencies throughout Clark County have a mutual aid agreement. The agreement means that emergency service agencies often share calls depending on severity and proximity.

Steele said it would be beneficial for the district to have control over the layout of fire services in the city.

“You could have four calls in the city of Battle Ground, and it would strip the rest of the district of protection,” Steele said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Let Battle Ground handle their own problem.’ But Battle Ground’s problems are our problems when it comes to 911.”

On Tuesday and at other public meetings leading up to the vote, attendees asked a number of questions. It was difficult, however, to assess whether a consensus had been formed.

Erdman has fielded dozens of phone calls and emails from residents about the subject in the past couple of weeks.

“I’m taking that as a positive, but in my conversations with people, they haven’t indicated where they’re leaning,” Erdman said.

With days left before the election, “I feel like it’s going to be a pretty close call,” Sorenson said.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter