This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Here’s a novel ballot measure: A fire district is not asking voters to either increase their taxes or renew existing ones.
Instead, the Lakewood Fire Department is asking voters in its fire protection district to approve a merger with the smaller University Place Fire Department as a way of making more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
If Lakewood voters approve the Feb. 8 ballot measure – and they would be wise to do so – the merged department would be known as West Pierce Fire & Rescue. That agency would be led by Lakewood Fire Chief Ken Sharp, and his deputy chief would be University Place’s current chief, Mitch Sagers. It would be governed by the merged five-member boards of both districts, with the new 10-member board shrinking to five as terms expire.
In the recession, the two departments collectively fell $1.5 million short due to decreased property valuation, the main source of their funding. Merging would create an economy of scale, allowing the single new department to reduce overlapping positions – particularly in administration – and share equipment as well as special services such as Lakewood’s marine unit.
Property owners in both districts currently pay the same tax rates for their regular levy and emergency medical services levy. The only difference is that Lakewood’s excess levy is $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation while University Place’s is 86 cents. Those rates will remain in place until the merged board decides to place an equalization measure on the ballot. It could decide on that in August.
Residents in the two districts should experience no visible change in service. In fact, the districts essentially have been working as one for several months now and have long shared recruiting and testing. University Place firefighters also train at Lakewood’s regional training center.
More and more communities in the South Sound are seeing the value of consolidating fire and emergency service. In 1990, the region had 32 fire districts or departments. Today there are fewer than 20. Last year, Edgewood and Milton voters approved mergers with East Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Lakewood voters should follow suit when their ballots arrive in the next few days. Merging the two districts makes sense financially, geographically and logistically. Although some residents proud of their community identity will miss having “Lakewood” and “University Place” in their fire departments’ names, the savings to be realized make the change easier to swallow.