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Voters to decide if Ferndale, Everson, Nooksack should officially join fire districts

It’s almost a riddle. The city of Ferndale isn’t in a fire district. Yet there’s a fire district headquartered in Ferndale, and if you dial 911, firefighters from Ferndale fire stations will show up to your door.

“People think we’re the Ferndale Fire District,” said Chief Gary Russell. “We’re not. We’re Whatcom County Fire District 7.”

Technically the fire district is outside of city limits. It covers a roughly 65-square-mile trapezoid from Aldrich Road to the coast, minus Ferndale. Since the 1950s, the city has contracted with the district to get fire services.

Likewise, the cities of Everson and Nooksack contract with Fire District 1.

Voters will decide on the Feb. 10 ballot if the districts should merge with the cities they surround (and already serve). Taxes wouldn’t go up, and fire services wouldn’t change.

Here’s what would change.

First, there would no longer be a middleman between city taxpayers and the districts. Right now property owners in Ferndale, for example, effectively pay the same tax rate as residents in the district, i.e., $1.23 per $1,000 in value in 2014 — except if you live you in the city, your taxes go to the city, as a chunk of the city’s general levy. The city then pays the district. If approved, the city would lower its tax rate so property taxes would, in the end, be the same.

Second, if the measures pass, city residents could vote on tax issues related to fire district issues, or run for fire commissioner, because they’d actually be in the district. Chief Mel Blankers of Fire District 1 expects a levy lid lift to go on the ballot in the coming years, in part to help pay for a new career position. (District 1 is almost all volunteers.) It would be fairer, Blankers said, if everyone served by the district got a chance to vote on the tax rates.

At a public hearing on annexation in September, Fire District 7 Commissioner Gerald Metzger said he was concerned the city “wished to run the fire department, which they had relinquished many years ago,” according to meeting records. Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen responded that it’s the other way around: The city wanted to join the district, in large part “to normalize the cost of fire service provided by the district.”

According to Chief Russell, adding another billion dollars or so in taxable property — as annexing Ferndale’s tax base would do — would be like a buffer for taxpayers. If property values fall in one part of the district, tax rates go up for everyone; in a larger district, the ups and downs would be less extreme.

Lately that’s of special concern to District 7, the home of the BP Cherry Point refinery, in light of a recent $300 million-plus dispute over the refinery’s value. An appeal is ongoing to decide if the county’s No. 1 taxpayer is worth $700 million, as BP claims, or more than $1 billion, as the county assessor’s office claims.

Voters will only see one measure related to annexation on their ballot, but there’s really a total of six. That’s because residents of cities and the existing districts both need to OK the merger separately. So Everson has to want to join the existing district, and the existing district has to want Everson to join.

Visit the City of Ferndale’s website for more info on the election.

To see a map of the county’s fire districts, visit co.whatcom.wa.us/pds/build/fire/districtinfo.jsp .

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