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News / Clark County News

Port of Ridgefield, fire districts finalize deal on tax program

Tax increment financing addressed in mitigation pact

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 6, 2024, 6:03am

The Port of Ridgefield has finalized a mitigation agreement with Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue and Clark County Fire District 6 related to the port’s recently approved tax increment financing program.

The agreements, which will help manage potential financial impacts to the fire districts, received unanimous approval from the boards of all three organizations.

“We appreciate the coordination from our fire districts about the future of (tax increment financing), and we look forward to partnering with them to work toward our shared commitment to the well-being of Ridgefield and Clark County residents,” port Commission Chairman Bruce Wiseman said in a news release Wednesday.

Tax increment financing is a relatively new tool available to local jurisdictions to fund development projects. Approved by the Legislature in 2021, the program allows jurisdictions to create separate tax increment areas, and properties within those areas are assigned a fixed or “base” property value when the tax area is formed. Taxes levied on future increases in the assessed value of the property — or the incremental value — are paid to the port to pay for the public improvements.

Other tax districts, such as the city, fire district or county — so-called junior districts — would continue to receive property tax revenues based on that fixed value, rather than the assessed value updated annually. This can have significant impacts on local agencies’ budgets and make it more challenging to keep up with growth and demand for services. The port has been working with the fire districts since March to develop a voluntary mitigation plan to address those impacts.

“We recognize the importance of our fire districts and acknowledge that they are among the most impacted when (tax increment financing) is used,” port CEO Randy Mueller said in the news release. “We’re pleased to have reached agreements that will help manage impacts to their agencies, and we look forward to continuing to work together to support our community.”

The port approved the creation of a tax increment area April 10. The tax revenue will help fund a 25-year, $62 million series of projects across the port district, the news release said. Projects include improvements at the Ridgefield waterfront and downtown, and near the Interstate 5-Northeast 179th Street interchange area.

While the tax program is a boon for cities, counties and ports, junior taxing districts are far less supportive.

“We’re happy with the mitigation agreement with the port; we’re not happy with tax increment financing. I think the district has been pretty clear about that,” Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr said Wednesday.

Nohr has been working with state lawmakers to update and modify how the law applies to certain junior tax districts.

“It’s a flawed law, and it needs some tuneups at the legislative level,” he said, adding that tax increment financing reform remains a top issue for fire districts in 2024.

Nohr said one of the legislative changes made this year requires jurisdictions to have binding arbitration with fire and hospital districts before a tax increment district is approved. This did not apply to the Port of Ridgefield because its tax program was in place prior to the law taking effect. Nohr said he was especially grateful the port followed through on a mitigation plan even when it wasn’t legally required.

“Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue appreciates that they made that commitment,” Nohr said.

Fire District 6 Chief Kristin Maurer said the mitigation agreement has the full support of the fire district, and it looks forward to partnering with the port.

Maurer, who serves as president of the Washington Fire Chiefs, said tax increment financing will remain a priority going into the next legislative session.

“We will continue to try to improve tax increment financing as it affects fire districts. We made a couple of steps forward in the right direction, but we’re going to continue to work on that and mitigate some of the downsides,” Maurer said Wednesday.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.