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Levy gets red hot support

KINGSTON — There was a collective gasp from a half-dozen North Kitsap Fire & Rescue staff members and commissioners in their conference room around 8:15 p.m. May 17.

The Kitsap County Auditor’s office had just posted the first unofficial results of the agency’s proposed tax levy increase ballot measure and they were positive — 56.65 percent voted “Yes” and 43.35 percent voted “No.”

“I can hardly talk,” NKF&R spokesperson Michéle Laboda said to NKF&R Assistant Chief Dan Smith over the phone after learning the results.

The measure’s passage Tuesday means the district will collect a tax of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property valuations starting in 2006. Currently, the district collects $1.25 per $1,000. After 2006, the levy rate will decrease as property values increase.

The lid lift will help support the first third of the agency’s fiscal year, which is January to April. During this period, NKF&R relies on carryover funds until it receives property tax revenues at the end of April. If the proposed ballot measure had not been approved, the district would have run out of carryover funding by 2008 and cuts, including personnel, would have been made.

Since Initiative 747 passed in 2001, public agencies have been restricted in how much they can collect in property tax revenues. They are limited to collecting 100 percent of what was collected the year before, plus just 1 percent and new construction taxes. NKF&R receives no federal, state or county funding, so 90 percent of its budget is based on its property tax revenues.

The district had been finding ways to increase its income and decrease its costs and going to the voters was one of the last resorts.

Fire officials weren’t sure what the outcome would be, given that very few residents showed up at the district’s public informational meetings held last month. They didn’t know if people were already planning to vote “yes” for the issue or if they were confused and weren’t asking questions.

NKF&R Commission Chair Leon Thomas said Tuesday evening that he wasn’t concerned about residents supporting the measure, especially those in his jurisdiction, Hansville.

“My contact with people in the whole district has been confident,” he said.

NKF&R Commissioner Gillian Gregory said while the staff is happy with the positive outcome, with 2,857 votes of approval, they are also taking note of the 2,186 voters who cast ballots against the proposition and are curious why they voted the way they did.

“We see No’s, we want to hear from those folks,” Gregory said. “I think (we) owe it to them to dig deeper.”

Smith said he was surprised at the margin.

“I would have anticipated it to be a little closer because of the communication (from residents) we were getting in the past week or two,” he said.

While response was minimal from the public at the first announcement of the proposed lid lift, more people started calling the fire district with questions after they received their ballots in the mail in late April.

“People seemed to be confused by the ballot language,” Smith said.

And this confusion was a big fear of the fire officials, in that people would not understand what the ballot was asking. Fire officials said they had little control over how the ballot language was written, as it is finalized by the Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

“Those are areas we need to with the county on,” Smith said. “Fire stations as whole in the county need to work with the prosecuting attorney’s office to make things a little more clearer.”

And if the measure hadn’t passed?

“It would have been very difficult to deal with, which would have been cuts all the way around,” Smith said. “To have to lay people off in this day and age is a difficult situation.”

Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn said most of the ballots for the NKF&R election have been counted and she expects the percentages to hold steady because there would need to be a significant number of “No” votes to change the outcome of the election.

A total of 11,595 ballots were sent to tax payers within the NKF&R district and approximately 5,600 were returned, which is about a 48 percent return rate. Flynn said she was expecting a 45 percent to 50 percent turnout, which is common for a special election. While 5,043 ballots had been counted by Tuesday night, there were still another 500 to tally as of Thursday afternoon and another 50 that were being challenged, meaning they didn’t have signatures that matched or any signature at all and needed further investigation. The results are expected to be certified May 27.

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