A levy increase on the Aug. 7 ballot could bring Whatcom Fire District 4 one step closer to a full-on merger with its much larger neighbor to the north.
But for the two to become one, District 4 would need to increase a property tax to match the rate in North Whatcom Fire and Rescue - which is maxed out right now at $1.50 per $1,000 of a property's assessed value.
The district contracted with North Whatcom in 2011 to cut down on redundancies and improve service.
So far, it's working out, said Mary Beth Neal, chairwoman of the district's commissioners. It gave the district better access to vehicle maintenance, more training through North Whatcom and a staff of 24-hour career firefighters at its Britton Loop headquarters.
Generally, District 4 serves residents from East Smith Road to the north shore of Lake Whatcom. This year residents in the district were taxed $1.11 per $1,000 of of assessed value for ambulance and fire services.
If voters approve the property tax measure through a simple majority, the rate would increase by 15 cents.
After that, the two districts could keep contracting with each other "forever," Neal said.
But the contract has worked out so well, she said, merging the two "definitely" seems possible. Commissioners don't want any long-term commitment between the districts to be hasty.
"Our hope is that North Whatcom's rate is going to start doing the downward shift," Neal said. "That would be the perfect time to ask both districts to marry."
In the '90s, taxpayers in District 4 paid the $1.50 rate, the maximum allowed in Washington state. Since then the rate has dwindled, and this is the first time since 1994 district leaders have asked for a rate increase.
District 4 has the third-highest levy rate of Whatcom County's dozen fire districts. About 9,000 people live within in its boundaries.
FIRE DISTRICT MAP
Here's a map of fire districts (PDF) in Whatcom County.
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