Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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In Our View: Battle Ground would be wise to join fire district

The Columbian

City officials in Battle Ground and the leadership of Clark County Fire District 3 are in the unenviable position of trying to explain why city residents should pay more money to get the exact same thing they are getting now.

Nonetheless, voters should give careful consideration to their arguments and mark their ballots “yes” in the Feb. 11 election. As always, we would urge voters to do their own research and make up their own minds; a good starting point is the factual information on the city’s website, www.cityofbg.org.

At issue is whether the city of Battle Ground should be annexed into the fire district, thus giving city residents the same services, provided at the same cost, that are available to their neighbors in Hockinson and Brush Prairie.

But first, a little background: Like most cities in Clark County, Battle Ground doesn’t run a fire department. If it did, it would cost at least $7 million to start, and more than $3 million per year to operate, according to city estimates.

Instead, since 2016, Battle Ground has contracted with Fire District 3, which provides fire protection and emergency medical services, with 42 front-line firefighters at five stations, including the one behind the Battle Ground McDonald’s. Last year, the contract cost the city $2.96 million, which was paid from the general fund that also covers the cost of police, parks and other general city services.

If you live in Battle Ground, or have been there lately, you can see the city is growing. So are the demands for service, and thus, the cost of the fire services contract. In fact, the cost is growing faster than the 1 percent annual increase in property tax collections allowed by state law. So the contract is eating up more and more of the general fund. Soon it will consume the city’s entire property tax revenue, according to City Manager Erin Erdman.

So the city and the fire district have given voters a choice. If they annex into the fire district, Battle Ground residents will pay their taxes directly to the fire district and be able to vote for fire commissioners. The tax rate will be identical to what rural residents already pay, but will be an increase for city residents. A city resident with a $300,000 house would pay an extra $390 per year, according to proponents.

The city has pledged to partly offset the tax increase by reducing utility taxes, which are paid on water, sewer and stormwater bills. The 46 percent reduction would save a typical family about $100 per year.

In other words, a Battle Ground family might face a total tax increase of about $300 per year, or more if they live in a costlier-than-average home. (Taxes won’t change for rural residents.)

So why should people pay more to receive the exact same service? By not having to pay for a big fire services contract, the city hopes to be able to pay for more policing, including re-establishing the K-9 program and adding a traffic enforcement unit. Some of the money could be used for road repairs and for parks and trails. From the fire district’s point of view, having the city become a permanent part of the fire district allows for better planning to accommodate growth.

Perhaps most importantly, it provides certainty that fire and emergency medical services will continue at a high level and at the same cost to city residents and those who live in the fire district. In all government budgets, there are ways to cut costs; but in this case, it seems unlikely that current services can continue in the not-so-distant future without some changes. By voting for annexation, voters can avoid this crisis.