Fire Authority Development Process

The first step in the process to determine if the regional fire authority (RFA) is right for you is to ask the following questions:

  • Are we considering an RFA for the benefit of our citizens?
  • Are we considering an RFA to gain efficiencies for the benefit of our citizens?
  • Are we considering an RFA to improve the overall level of service, standards of cover, and enhance services for the benefit of our citizens?
If the answer to these simple questions is yes, then an RFA might be a strong consideration for your department. However, if you are considering an RFA simply to try to save money, or due to a funding issue; or, if you are considering an RFA to eliminate issues between fire departments (such as issues between cities and fire districts), then the RFA probably is not the answer for you. The RFA should only be used if it can be determined that combining fire departments, or subsets of fire departments, can truly benefit the citizens that are being served. If it is not about the citizens, then don’t do it. If it is, then proceed forward!
 
For those not familiar with the term RFA, or the concept, a regional fire protection authority (RFA) is a municipal corporation in Washington and a separate taxing district. Its boundaries have reasonable proximity to at least two or more fire protection jurisdictions (e.g. a fire district or districts and/or a city) that want to cooperate and form such an authority. The entity is created by a vote of the people. An RFA operates pursuant to a Plan, which is formulated by a Planning Committee and approved by the voters in the service area. The statute (Title 52) outlines broadly how the plan is formulated, what agencies to coordinate with and consult, and includes public input requirements. There is a detailed statutory provision dealing with the authorization of the RFA to establish a system of ambulance service, requiring procedures to ensure that the system does not compete with existing private ambulance services, unless first there is a finding of inadequacy of service. There have been similar “inadequacy” and “non-compete” provisions in city and county laws for many years. However, those provisions do not exist for fire districts, as they can lawfully establish ambulance services that compete with private ambulance services without running afoul of any law (or proving inadequacy), including the antitrust laws.

In the Plan, the RFA’s recommended sources of revenue should also be set forth, to include tax levies and benefit charges, if any. However, if the plan calls for imposition of any benefit charges or levying of any taxes that would need 60% voter approval, then the ballot measure to approve the Plan and create the RFA needs 60% voter approval. Otherwise, the measure needs only majority approval by the voters.

Therefore, if the decision is made by two (2) or more protection jurisdictions within reasonable proximityhat wish to explore the potential of combining their services for the benefit of their citizens, then the first step is to establish a Planning Committee. The Planning Committee, is responsible to develop the “Plan” for the RFA, which is the single most important component of the RFA as it establishes how the RFA will operate; how the RFA will be funded; and how the RFA will be governed and managed. Here are some key points related to the “Planning Committee”:
 
  • Each governing body of the fire protection jurisdictions looking into the RFA shall appoint three (3) elected officials to the RFA Planning Committee. This can be a mix of Fire District Commissioners, City Council Members and Tribal Leaders depending upon the RFA being considered.
  • The RFA Planning Committee may elect officers and adopt rules and procedures at its first meeting. These should then be agreed upon in writing.
  • The Planning Committee may dissolve itself at any time by a majority vote of the total membership of the Planning Committee. This would occur if the research into the RFA shows that the RFA is not the method of choice for the participating agencies.
  • Any participating fire protection jurisdiction may withdraw upon thirty (30) calendar days written notice to the other jurisdictions.

The RFA Plan, developed by the Planning Committee (or by subcommittees as assigned by the Planning Committee) provides for the design, financing and development of fire protection and emergency services in the proposed RFA. The Plan:

 
  • Shall create opportunities for public input in the development of the plan. This can be handled through public hearings, public meetings, and other such venues.
  • Shall consider transport issues related to use of private ambulance companies, or potential transport by the RFA itself.
  • May include land use planning and input from surrounding cities and districts.
  • Shall deliver the final approved Plan to all of the governing bodies to initiate an election.

The Plan, agreed upon by the Planning Committee, still requires the approval of the governing bodies of each entity in order to place the RFA on the ballot (i.e. individual City Councils and Fire District Commissioner Boards still have to approve the RFA Plan for it to move forward).
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  • If the RFA Plan is placed on the ballot, yet not approved through an election by citizens in the affected areas, the RFA Planning Committee may modify the Plan for re-submission to the voters.
  • If the RFA Plan fails three (3) times the RFA Planning Committee is dissolved (in other words, three (3) strikes and you’re out!!!).
Funding for the RFA may include any tax or benefit charge that is available to a fire district:
 
  • Fire levy (collection up to $1.50 per $1000 of assessed valuation, including the authority to run multi-year lid lifts).
  • EMS levy
  • Excess levy 
  • Benefit Charge 
  • Bonds for Capital Purchases

All funding mechanisms except for an EMS levy renewal, require a super majority (60% or greater), except the $1.50/1000 of AV fire levy (ad valorem property taxes). The funding mechanism for the RFA is built directly into the RFA Plan. Thus, when the RFA is eventually placed before the voters at an agreed upon election, if the RFA Plan includes a funding mechanism that requires a simple majority (ad valorem taxes at up to $1.50 per $1000 of A/V) then the approval of the RFA Plan by the voters requires a simple majority (50% plus 1 voter). If the RFA Plan includes a funding mechanism that requires a super majority (60% or greater, such as via the Benefit Charge) then the approval of the RFA Plan by the voters requires a super majority

The governing bodies of the fire protection jurisdictions may certify the Plan to the ballot once they receive the RFA Plan from the Planning Committee. The governing bodies of the fire protection jurisdictions draft a single ballot measure that both approves the formation of the authority (RFA), and approves the plan itself. Authorities may negotiate interlocal agreements necessary to implement the plan. The electorate is the citizens voting within the boundaries of the proposed regional fire protection service authority. In other words, all citizens in the proposed RFA who are registered to vote have the authority to vote on the RFA. It is the TOTAL of all who vote that determine the outcome of the RFA (in other words, the RFA does not need to pass in each individual jurisdiction…it is the combined vote from all participating jurisdictions which determines passage or failure). The RFA is liable for its proportionate share of the costs of the election if it passes. If it fails, each original governing entity must share the costs of the election based upon the formulas utilized for elections based on the number of registered voters in each area.

If the RFA passes at the ballot, the RFA is formed on the next January 1st or July 1st after voter approval, whichever is sooner. The county where the RFA has formed shall publish a notice declaring the RFA formed within 15 days of the certification of the election. Any challenge on the procedure or the formation of the RFA must take place within 30 days of the certification of the election to the County Prosecuting Attorney and Attorney General.

A key point to keep in mind is that due to the operations within each County around the State, if an RFA election takes place after August 1st of a given year, then the RFA will not be able to collect ad valorem taxes or issue benefit service charges in the upcoming year (i.e. if the ballot measure passes in mid-August or November of 2007, the RFA cannot begin to collect funds as a municipal organization until January of 2009…not 2008). This is due to the fact that for County Finance and the Assessor’s Office, August 1st is the cutoff date for any entity to be formally in place for the collection of property taxation or benefit service charges in the following year. This key component must be kept in mind during the Planning Committee process as it might require that the RFA operate in its first year under contractual agreements with the old governance bodies (i.e. contracts with the Cities or Fire Districts) to collect funds and distribute these funds back to the RFA for its operations. Then, the following year, the RFA can operate as outlined under Title 52 for revenue. The statute provides that RFA Plans shall be reviewed, and updated as necessary, by the governing body, every ten years.

Most of the typical list of powers usually provided to fire districts or cities are included for the RFA within Title 52, plus a sort of “catchall” provision saying the board may exercise powers and perform duties the board determines necessary to carry out the purposes, functions and projects of the authority in accordance with Title 52, if one of the fire protection jurisdictions is a fire district, or other statutes identified in the plan, if none are fire districts. Property rights and eminent domain powers would be “transferred” from the former fire districts and/or cities to the RFA. This makes it rather plain that a participating city or fire district is “out of business” completely, at least with respect to fire and EMS, when an RFA is created. All funds, assets, and personnel of the participating jurisdictions must be transferred over to the RFA. Detailed statutory changes make it clear that employees get transferred, with at least equal compensation to what they enjoyed at the time of transfer, no change in benefits, promotional opportunities, or probationary periods. If any of the participating jurisdictions had a civil service system, as city firefighters do (and a few fire districts, such as Lakewood) then the law requires that to be negotiated per RCW 41.56. In addition, existing collective bargaining agreements must be honored until they expire, or have been modified or renegotiated by the RFA and the new Union(s).

The RFA can incur indebtedness and issue municipal bonds, up to three-fourths of one percent of the taxable property within the boundaries and not to exceed twenty years. Also, general obligation bonds are allowed to be issued, but not to exceed 1 ½ percent of the value of taxable property.