FD3 at work

Clark County Fire District 3 firefighters work to extinguish flames after a crash in 2017. The district currently has a contract to provide fire protection services to Battle Ground, though the city is eyeing the potential for formal annexation into the district which would ensure consistent service levels but increase the property tax burden on city residents.

The Battle Ground City Council got a rundown of a recent survey on the possibility of formal annexation into Clark County Fire District 3 and the results showed that education on the city’s public safety situation is necessary for successfully bringing the city into the district.

The councilors heard from Allison Peters with consulting firm Enviroissues on the survey, which was sent out to residents by mail in April. She said the survey went out to about 6,300 households and close to 500 responses were received — better than average given similar surveys in similar cities, she mentioned.

Peters said respondents skewed toward longtime residents with more than half coming from those 60 years old or older, though her firm weighted results to fit more in line with the actual demographics of the city. She noted that of the respondents, 58% had voted in at least three of the last four elections, representing people who likely would take part in any ballot measure that would come up regarding annexation.

Respondents’ initial reactions to the potential for annexation were across the board — Peters’ presentation showed that 39% were unsure, 33% were mostly positive and 28% were mostly negative. 

In her presentation, Peters explained that the survey was created in a way to leave “breadcrumbs” for respondents — information about the reality of fire service in the city and what a potential annexation would look like. 

Questions prior to those explanations showed that residents’ perceptions of the city and its fire protection service didn’t always correlate with the facts. Forty-three percent of respondents knew about the current contracting the city does with the district, while roughly a fifth thought the city had its own department and another third thought the city was already a part of FD3.

Peters said that Battle Ground residents paid about 30% less in combined property taxes than neighboring cities in Clark County. Survey respondents, however, largely believed this not to be the case, with 47% saying their taxes were about the same and 25% saying they were higher.

By the end of the survey, as the “breadcrumbs” led to a more accurate picture of the city’s situation, Peters noted a shift in at least consideration of annexation, as 60% responded the city should have the option on the table. Peters said that of the 39% who initially were on the fence about annexation, they responded two-to-one in favor of considering annexation, while the other groups didn’t shift opinions too much by the end of the survey.

“They’re learning more about who their fire service provider is. They are learning and thinking more about the impacts of growth and where money could be spent if more money in the general fund was available. They’re thinking about fairness,” Peters said. 

As annexation would increase the overall tax rate on property owners in the city — an estimate in Peters’ presentation anticipated an increase of $300 to $400 annually on the average property in the city — the survey asked about alternatives to annexation as well as what the city could do to ease some of the increased tax burden.

Sixty percent of respondents favored cutting city taxes which would offset the increase from annexation while 40% would rather reinvest the money currently used to pay the contract for local projects. Of those who favored a tax cut, Peters said about two-thirds wanted a cut of 100% of what the increase from annexation would be, while a third would be fine with 50%.

Among the alternatives to annexation, the only ones to get majority support were in favor of reducing hours of public access of services at city hall and a potential closure or reduction of hours at the community center. Alternatives like cuts to public safety or parks and recreation programs were at about 50% approval each, though public safety staff cuts were strongly unfavorable, as were cuts to parks or street maintenance.

One thing respondents were near-unanimous about was that FD3 is doing a good job for the city. According to the presentation, 66% of respondents were “very satisfied” with current fire service and 30% were somewhat satisfied. Peters said those numbers were among the highest in the state.

“Your best messengers (on potential annexation) are going to be representatives of the fire district,” Peters remarked, pointing to their overwhelming favorability.

Battle Ground Mayor Pro Tem Shane Bowman said that informing residents on current taxes and service situations would be the city’s biggest task, something that has been challenging in the past. 

“I don’t know how many times that the mayor and the city and all of us on council have put out there on social media the comparisons to every other city,” Bowman said, adding later that, “We have to be out there nonstop, communicating to the public.” He stressed that the city would likely only get one shot at a potential annexation approval.

“This community is very good at saying ‘we told you no,’” Bowman said, referencing votes by Battle Ground Public Schools residents in 2018 where a bond vote failed twice in a row — and by a greater percentage the second time around.

“We want to make sure that our message is clear,” Bowman said. 

“Trust in government is the problem,” Councilor Steven Phelps said, adding that the city would need to convince younger voters in the city — the kind who didn’t respond to the survey as much — to vote in favor.

Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro said the numbers of respondents unsure or in favor of annexation was encouraging given a relatively low number of people “dead set” against anything that would raise taxes.

“As they went through the survey, as they learned more, they began to understand that something has to be done differently here,” Dalesandro said.

In terms of next steps, Dalesandro said city officials would be meeting with FD3 to discuss the way forward given the survey data.

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