Over a 10-year period, the Woodburn Fire District has experienced a 42% increase in emergency-response incidents, including a record-high 2,776 emergency calls in 2020.
District officials anticipate that trend to continue.
The 75-square-mile district currently serves 39,000 residents, an increase by 18% over the same 10-year period. District residents are served by a combination of career and volunteer staff that includes 17 career employees and 30 paid-on-call volunteers. The career members include 12 line firefighters who work 24-hour rotating shifts with four firefighters, including a paramedic, on duty at all times.
Volunteers respond to major incidents and overlapping emergency calls.
Additional assistance during times of high call volume is provided by the Hubbard Fire District under an intergovernmental agreement that benefits both districts at no cost for either agency.
Woodburn Fire Chief Joe Budge and WFD Board President Aaron Baker hope to highlight these operations details, district needs and an understanding of the tax structure providing them in advance of a bond going before voters this month.
The bond would replace a current general obligation bond that expires in 2022. No new taxes would be collected until that bond expires.
WFD officials note that the proposed bond would allow the district to continue funding long-term capital expenses as it has for the past 20 years. The proposed capital expenses include:
• Replacement of eight aging emergency response vehicles;
• Purchase of a brush-fire truck for wildland firefighting;
• Ensure fire-medics have up-to-date medical equipment;
• Replace outdated firefighter self-contained breathing apparatus and rescue equipment;
• Reestablish Gervais Fire Station 23;
• Develop firefighter-medic training center;
• Provide critical maintenance of the district's four fire stations.
Gervais has been a part of the district since 1986 but has not had a station since the former one closed in 2007. District officials say reestablishing the Gervais station would provide the entire district with more holistic emergency response capability.
"The reestablishment of that station is an important part in providing adequate coverage across the entire fire district," Budge said.
Property taxes in WFD
WFD emergency operations are funded by property taxes that have been shaped by tax reform measures in Oregon from the 1990s. Prior to reform, taxing districts in Oregon were funded by a levy system that set the property tax collection rate to meet the budgetary needs for each fiscal year.
A lack of predictability under that system of floating tax rates resulted in unexpected increases in taxes, which in turn led to property tax reform Measures 5 and 50.
The approval of Measure 5 in 1990 placed a limit on the total amount of taxes that could be levied for each individual property. The cap, which remains in place, is $5 per $1,000 of a property's real market value for the funding of schools and $10 per $1,000 for all other government services.
When the amount of taxes for a property exceeds the Measure 5 cap, tax "compression" occurs that proportionately reduces the levied taxes from all government agencies until the total tax bill falls below the cap.
In 1997, Measure 50 passed and changed Oregon's funding for government services from a floating rate system to a fixed rate structure. Under this law, property tax rates are no longer based on the real market value of property; they are calculated on the assessed value, which is limited to 3% annual increases. Measure 50 also assigned a permanent tax rate to each taxing agency based on a percentage of the taxes levied in 1995-96.
While Measure 50 places limits on tax increases, it also allows government services to receive additional funds through voter-approved, general-obligation bonds and local option levies. Bond funds can only be used for capital expenditures, such as vehicles, equipment and facilities that have a lifespan of 10 years or more.
Local option levies can be used for any expenditures, including personnel and operating expenses. Measure 50 provides a stable system where property owners can predict tax costs each year, and taxing districts can accurately forecast tax revenue received. The tax structure also allows agencies to acquire additional funding while maintaining local tax payer control through the ballot.
What WFD bond does
Under the reformed property tax structure, WFD receives funds from the district's permanent tax rate at $1.60 per $1,000.
In 2018, voters approved a five-year local option levy that added 35 cents per $1,000 to the permanent rate to maintain four-firefighter staffing, including a paramedic, on-duty at all times. The additional levy funds were needed to keep up with increased operating expenses, largely due to growth within the district.
Bond approval would allow WFD to continue to fund capital needs through general obligation bonds. In turn, this allows revenue from the district's permanent rate and local option levy to afford additional firefighter-medics when needed over the next 20 years to keep pace with district growth and emergency response demands.
If not approved, the district would have to dip into operating funds for capital expenses, funds that would otherwise retain firefighter-medics.
The initial tax rate for the replacement bond is estimated to be 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, which is the same initial rate the current bond began with in 2003. As with the current bond, the rate is expected to decline somewhat over the proposed bond's 20-year lifespan as property values in the district increase over time.
The cost of the bond for property assessed at $175,000, about average for residential property in the district, would be $45 a year, or about $3.80 per month. No new taxes would be collected until the current bond expires.
For bond information, visit the WFD website at woodburnfire.com.
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