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Friday, May 6, 2011

Slow Burn

A puzzling and awkward story in this week's All Point Bulletin about the Point Roberts Fire District and its doings. These District Commissioner groups are about the closest we get here to self-governance.  The Parks Board, the Water Board, the Wellness Clinic Board, the Fire District Board: that's about it, and it often isn't pretty.

Mostly, in my view, the Fire District Commissioners are always longing for more money for more equipment. And mostly they get it. Boys and their toys is how, uncharitably, I usually think of it. On the other hand, I probably always vote to give it to them because I mostly think of their being less in the fire business than in the rescue business and we probably need more rescue equipment than places less isolated and border-complexified.  It's not obvious what is enough, so I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Last fall, the Fire District made a big push for a levy increase and the electorate gave it to them by ballot. The amount of money they wanted wasn't exactly specific; it wasn't a bond they were issuing or a loan they were trying to get.  It was a levy increase which was, presumably, closely related to what they expected and needed to raise for their new projects, given the assessed value of property in Point Roberts.   It was a substantial increase:  it nearly doubled the levy rate and thus doubled the Fire District's budget in what are widely billed as difficult economic times for local and state governments.

Then, when the assessments and the ensuing tax bills came out this year, we were all pretty surprised to find, in the worst real estate environment in pretty much all of our histories, the assessed value of Point Roberts property increased, on average, by 16%.  The Assessor 'explains' how this happened here.  However, I still don't understand how the evaluations could have gone up 16% in 2010.  But that's what happened, with or without an explanation that explains.

Anyway, this 16% increase means that the new Fire District levy brought in about 16% more than it had expected and that all the property owners paid about 16% more than they expected in addition to the additional levy.  Which, one can imagine, might not have sat well with a lot of people.  Or perhaps most people if they had thought about it.

I had looked at our tax bill and been impressed with how little the library got and how much the Fire District got.  But I hadn't thought about that latter amount in relation to the fall election and the assessment increase.  However, somebody else did.

Fred DeHaan, a volunteer fire fighter and long-time resident, contacted the Fire District about this unexpected windfall the District had received as a result not of the election but of the 16% increase in property evaluation.  Mr. DeHaan proposed that Fire District return some of? all? that levy increase to the property owners.  Mr. Gellatly, a Fire District Commissioner, suggested that Mr. DeHaan was just a big property owner who would, of course, have to pay more, but that the voters had spoken.  The APB quotes Mr. Meursing, another Fire District Commissioner,  as saying "I don’t like to go back on what we have received from the public.”  

This makes it sound as if we (ie, 'the public,' had made a charitable contribution to the Fire District and the Fire District would be doing the property owners/voters a great disservice if they didn't use that contribution to the fullest extent for whatever was in their minds.  Another Commissioner seems to say that it would be a good idea to keep track of how these funds are spent.  She must surely have meant something other than that because "keeping track of how the money is spent" must be more than just a good idea.  Surely that's a requirement.  

And then the Fire District Commissioners voted to keep all the money and spend it on their projects, whatever they may be.

Now, I don't know what the alternative possibilities are here.  I doubt if the Fire District can simply refuse a levy that the voters approved.  But the attitude on view of the Fire Commissioners is simply appalling to my ears.  They sound as if they had made some kind of sharp business deal and would go to the mats to keep their profits, including their windfall profits.  They serve the community right?  Or is it that we serve them?  I never can keep that straight.  

I think the Commisioners may look forward to long voters' memories on this one.  For me, the boys have enough toys for a very extensive period of time.  The benefit of the doubt now goes the other way: that would be, no way.

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