Rockaway Beach held a public hearing in November to introduce and discuss an ordinance that would create a tax to fund emergency services, particularly fire services.
Rockaway Beach City Council voted in December 2018 to hire a full-time, paid fire chief. The new tax would be used for that expense. A revenue line for the tax was included in the budget, but the cost was not determined at the time.
During the public hearing that was held Nov. 13 at the regular city council meeting, it was announced the tax would be set at $5 per single-family home within city limits. Those who live outside of city limits but inside the local fire district already pay a fire service tax. There is reportedly more than $400 million in property to protect for the Rockaway Beach area.
City officials said there was discussion around whether the tax should be a separate bill or included on utility billing, but the potential benefits of separate billing were outweighed by the reported $6,000 in postage costs to go that way. The tax is more likely to appear on water bills as a “fire service fee.”
“It may be a reality check for some people here tonight,” said Luke Sheperd, the Rockaway Beach public works director who is temporarily serving as city manager. “But it’s really no secret that for a long time now – and despite the best efforts of the fantastic volunteers we have – we’ve been trying to keep up with the times.”
Sheperd said the requirements and standards imposed on the Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department have dramatically increased over the years and the old model is no longer sustainable. A report that was compiled on Rockaway Beach’s fire department was summed up by Sheperd in one conclusive line: “the analysis revealed that fire department is not capable of meeting national or state recognized standards for emergency response.”
“For a department whose sole function is emergency response that’s a big problem, and quick action needs to be taken here to fix that,” Sheperd said. “Fortunately, in the same report they laid out a plan on how to get the department where it needs to be within a year … that’s really what this ordinance is about; it’s bringing the revenue now we need to hire a fire chief that can quickly get the emergency response from our fire department where it needs to be.”
The hearing was opened for public comment. Around 10 people spoke to the council, most supporting the need to fund the fire chief position, though some asked about additional study into other revenue sources. There were also calls for limiting the tax against future increases and some expressed concern about setting a precedent for creating more new taxes.
David Elkins, emergency manager for Rockaway Beach and a former fire chief, confirmed the cost and hours required to keep up with standards and requirements are significant, worthy of a full-time position. He added that fire department capabilities affect home insurance costs for residents, also noting more costly water bill rates in some communities with regard to the proposed funding mechanism for the fire chief.
“The city is operating on a shoestring, that’s why we don’t have all of the resources that we need,” Elkins said. “The town is growing … we have to have the services to support that.”
City Councilor Kristine Hayes motioned for the council to dismiss the ordinance’s first reading at the meeting, voicing concerns that the public had not been given a chance to read it and form an opinion. She said she only received the document a day before the reading was scheduled. Hayes said she supports hiring a fire chief but wants more discussion and public notices first. Hayes’ motion was not seconded and failed.
City Councilor Terry Walhood motioned for the council to accept the ordinance for a first reading. She said a fire chief is needed immediately, adding that she has been researching ideas such as a tax levy or bond measure as well as forming a joint fire district, methods of funding that would take time and effort to establish, possibly a year or two. Fire officials have said a fire chief could pursue those ideas better than a volunteer staff because of the effort required.
“This is going to help us now, and help protect everyone,” Walhood said in reference to the tax. She suggested setting a limit on the tax would be unnecessary if alternative funding streams could be secured.
Hayes noted that with staff shortages in city administration and half of the fiscal year done, the cost for hiring a fire chief could be covered at this time without instituting the tax. She also expressed support for a joint fire district with nearby Garibaldi. The two cities currently hold a mutual aid agreement.
“This, to me, is an open checkbook and I won’t vote for it,” Hayes said. She later added that in the budget meeting it was said that the tax would be public noticed and go to a vote of the citizens.
Hayes said the budget process related to the fire chief had been done backwards, approving the line item without a corresponding revenue source. She also presented a news article in which a city council was recalled over a similar tax, warning of possible backlash from voters.
“I want everyone that benefits from the service to pay for their fair share and not just those with water meters” Hayes said.
Hayes said it would be better to have full public support before approving the tax. She also said she had voted for a study of the fire hall structure, not the departmental analysis that recommended a paid chief and cost $10,000.
Disputing the $6,000 estimate given to mail the tax bills, Hayes said it could be done for around $1,500, but she also pointed to available space in the city newsletter as an option. She also said the ordinance includes three separate line items and asked if the tax is strictly to pay for a fire chief, why not have a single entry or an emergency services fee that be used for all.
The first reading of the ordinance was approved with support from all council members except for Hayes. An additional hearing and vote on the ordinance are expected at a coming meeting. The next meeting of the Rockaway Beach City Council is slated for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11.