King Co. fire chief offers gloomy assessment if levy fails

AUBURN, Wash. - Voters in King County have just a couple of days to mail in their ballots for the maintenance and operational levy that would help restore lost revenue to several fire districts.

The problem for Fire District 44 - only 25 percent of voters have sent in their ballot, but the election needs 40 percent of voters who cast a ballot in the 2012 general election to be validated.

Firefighters from the district provide service on 2,000 calls a year, putting out fires, providing medical care and making water rescues.

But for the district to continue to provide service as usual, the levy must pass on Tuesday.

"We don't have much more to cut anymore - other than line firefighters," says Fire Chief Greg Smith.

District 44 serves 70 miles of unincorporated areas around Auburn, Kent, Covington and Enumclaw. Property owners there currently pay $1.50 on every $1,000 of assessed property value. But since values have decreased, so has revenue that's essential for the district's operations.

"We've lost about $1.8 million over the last four years," says Smith.

The district has laid off five staff members, cut the budget and used emergency funds. To help prevent further cuts, the district is asking taxpayers to pay $1.81 on every $1,000 of assessed property value.

That means homeowners would pay approximately $326 per year on a house worth $180,000.

"Where emergency services is concerned, you can't spend too much money," says voter Gary Keene.

But another voter, Dean Rauenhorst, says it's money he doesn't want to spend.

"Like people say, it's only 31 cents. But 31 cents here, 40 cents there, a dollar here, a dollar there - and they never go the other way," he says.

The levy needs a supermajority to pass, meaning 60 percent of voters must be willing to pay more - or soon fire and emergency service will not be the same in District 44.

"We will see a reduction in the level of service," says Smith.

Voters - whether for or against the levy increase - have two more days to drop off ballots in the mail. The ballots need to be postmarked by the close of business Tuesday.