Council OKs special election for fire service annexation, announces intent to reduce property taxes

Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton discusses the city’s potential fire service annexation with the council.

After lengthy debate, the Mountlake Terrace City Council at its Tuesday, Feb. 21 business meeting approved the special election for the city’s proposed annexation into the South County Regional Fire Authority (RFA) and announced its intent to reduce property taxes for the city’s residents.

The council had received six presentations on the proposed annexation from Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton during the months of January and February, and the council held an extensive discussion before finally voting on the matter Tuesday night.

“The city is at a crossroads,” Clifton told the council.

While both options – annexing or not – will be costly for taxpayers, the assistant city manager said annexation is the only feasible option for the city long term. If voters choose to not annex, the city will soon be using its entire property tax general fund to pay for fire service, sending the city’s budget into a deficit that will be difficult to get out of.

Clifton said there are several requirements the council has to approve to bring the annexation before voters April 25. First, the council must submit a resolution calling for a special election for the annexation. Next, the council must approve the amended RFA plan that was created with city staff as well as a pre-annexation agreement. This agreement helps create a smooth transition of responsibility from the city to South County Fire during the annexation process. The council must also approve a use agreement, which outlines how Fire Station 19 – located in Mountlake Terrace – will be used by both the RFA and city staff.

Finally, the council has to adopt a resolution expressing its intent to reduce city property taxes by a certain amount, as Clifton had previously described during the council’s Feb. 16 meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl made a motion to approve a special election April 25 to place the annexation before voters.

“We’ve spent a lot of time now talking about this issue,” he said. “I think we all recognize the importance of at least putting it in front of our voters, our residents, letting people be able to make a decision about annexing into the fire district. It is critical for our residents to weigh in on this important decision.”

The motion passed unanimously.

Wahl also moved to approve the amended RFA agreement, pre-annexation agreement and the use agreement. The motion was unanimously passed.

Finally, the mayor pro tem moved to approve a resolution stating the council’s intent to reduce property taxes by 33 cents per every $1,000 of assessed property value in 2024 – the first scenario Clifton offered the council during his last presentation – should voters choose to annex the city into the RFA April 25.

“I believe it is important to reduce the amount of property taxes paid by our residents,” Wahl said. “As I mentioned before, I think it’s critical that we annex into the fire district. It is critical for the health and stability of our city and for providing fire services to our residents. I think it’s really important that we pass this and annex into the fire district. I don’t want to take any chances. I want to make sure our residents are comfortable and are supportive of making this move. I think the best way to do that is to ensure that there is the least amount of impact to their pocketbooks.”

Wahl reiterated to the audience that the city cannot afford to not annex into the RFA, and that annexation is the only financially responsible decision for Mountlake Terrace at this time.

“If we don’t pass this, we’re going to find ourselves in a world of hurt,” he said. “We can’t afford it.”

The council launched into lengthy discussion over the amount that property taxes should be reduced, if at all. While every councilmember voiced their desire to ease the financial burden on the Mountlake Terrace residents, some said they saw this as an opportunity to finally give the city some of the upgrades it has desperately been needing for years.

“The difference is going to be paying either $32 or $39, realistically,” Councilmember Steve Woodard said. “Because the bottom line is, you’re going to be paying $32 either way. That’s just what it is. And I don’t think it will be that difficult for residents to come up with that extra $7 at the end of the month.”

Woodard said the benefits of keeping property taxes the same and using the extra money to give the city much-needed upgrades would greatly outweigh the cons of residents having bills that are only a few dollars higher than if they got a tax break.

“I hope our residents will see this as an opportunity … rather than another tax burden,” he said. “Some burdens are actually opportunities, and I would say this is one of those times. So I ask: Is [$32] really that different from [$39], especially if that [$7] is going to give you something that you’ve been wanting, in some cases, for generations?”

Councilmember Rory Paine-Donovan suggested that rather than approve the first scenario with the biggest tax break, the council set aside $50,000 of those funds to be used for a utility relief fund that all residents are able to apply for. This would increase each resident’s annual tax bill by roughly $6 and their monthly bill by approximately 51 cents.

Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl urged the council to keep the ballot as simple as possible.

Mayor Pro Tem Wahl urged the council to not make the resolution more complicated with additional funds being set aside as it could confuse voters and cause them to vote to reject the annexation.

“I feel like it’s important to caution us about the need to simplify,” he said. “We can’t afford to overcomplicate this issue. The more we keep talking and dividing and setting aside … the more confusing it gets to all the voters. And what do voters do when they’re confused on a tax issue? They vote no. We can’t afford to let them be confused. Let’s keep the focus on providing fire services.”

Wahl’s motion was subsequently amended to reduce the amount that property taxes would be decreased from 33 cents to roughly 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2024 – giving the council the extra $50,000 for Paine-Donovan’s proposed utility relief fund.

Both the amendment and the original motion were passed unanimously by the council Tuesday night. The council also unanimously approved the members for the pro and con committees regarding the annexation.

In addition, the council received a presentation from the Edmonds School District Tuesday night regarding the district’s various programs aimed at helping students succeed. The council also approved the first amendment to the Interim City Manager Professional Services Agreement as well as reinstating the city’s passport program and adding additional staffing in the city’s finance department.

— y Lauren Reichenbach

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