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NKF&R wages capped for next three years

KINGSTON — In their final meeting of 2011, North Kitsap Fire & Rescue commissioners Tuesday night signed contracts with employee groups that cap wage increases at 0 percent for the next three years.

The contract sealed the latest in a series of cost-saving measures to help the district maintain levels of service as property tax revenues – about 90 percent of fire district funding – continue to drop.

NKF&R’s employee groups have been partnering with district leaders on similar efforts since the beginning of the economic downturn when personnel first agreed to open their contracts to forego promised cost-of-living increase in 2009 and every year since. Personnel costs comprised 83 percent of NKF&R’s budget in 2010.

The district has worked hard to economize in other budget areas as well, imposing budget discipline in areas such as supplies and utilities charges, according to Michele Laboda, public information officer of North Kitsap Fire and Rescue. Expenses for the district’s apparatus maintenance operation are defrayed by contracting out mechanics’ services to other fire departments.

Other cooperative efforts with neighboring agencies have also netted savings.

Rather than hiring an employee to do the work, NKF&R contracts with the Olympic Educational Service District to provide information technology services at a much lower cost. One facilities maintenance specialist is shared across the “Tri-North” fire departments (Bainbridge Island Fire Department, Poulsbo Fire Department and NKF&R). The three also conduct joint promotional testing, significantly reducing the associated costs to each agency. Officer development training is jointly funded, allowing each department’s current and future leaders to receive better quality training than could otherwise be afforded. Instead of individually purchasing high-dollar maintenance equipment, the three departments are sharing items such as brake testers and more. The commissioners are also actively pursuing further efficiencies in ongoing talks with Poulsbo Fire Department.

Another source of savings has been the deferral of major repairs, improvements and replacement. While that strategy is helping on a temporary basis, it cannot be sustained into the future as the district’s vehicles and facilities age, according to Laboda.

Under Chapter 52 of the Revised Code of Washington, fire protection districts such as NKF&R are authorized to collect property taxes of up to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. With more than 60 percent voter approval, districts are also authorized to levy property taxes of up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to provide emergency medical services (EMS). The amount collected from each of these levies can’t exceed 101 percent of the previous year’s total.

Under normal economic conditions, the total assessed valuation of the district rose annually. Levy rates were adjusted downward to keep the collections on existing properties within the 101 percent limitation. The current economic situation has caused property values to plummet, and the amount of new construction has fallen. As the district’s assessed valuation falls, levy rates can be increased to provide 101 percent of the previous year’s tax revenues. Prolonged decreases in property values have kept the district’s EMS levy at its statutory lid of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation since it was reauthorized by voters in 2007.

The district’s fire levy is at its statutory lid of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the 2012 budget year. As a result, NKF&R will collect over $100,000 less in tax revenue for 2012 than in 2011, according to Laboda. There will be no improvement until there’s significant new construction in the district; the trend is expected to continue until the economy recovers and assessed valuations stabilize.

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