Bend May Ask Voters To Annex Into Rural Fire District

Many Central Oregonians - perhaps most - have had to get creative to survive in the tough economy. The city of Bend, looking at falling revenues but a slower but still-growing population to serve, is doing the same - and that could mean the end of Bend Fire and Rescue as we know it, and its annexation into Deschutes County Rural Fire District No. 2 - if voters approve that move and an accompanying tax hike.

That proposal, possibly to be put before voters in the spring of 2011, was the favored of three options laid out in detail before city councilors at a work session Wednesday night, as it was seen as a longer-term answer and not a stop-gap fix, like more cuts or a temporary tax levy.

The council heard new, even more sobering estimates from city staff: If the city moves to keep its current level of police and fire service - which officials say would require adding 16 more officers and nine new firefighters - Bend could face a $21.2 million shortfall over the next six years.

While many details of the way forward still remain to be hashed out, city staff also said there's no "wiggle room" in their revenue forecast, meaning it doesn't factor in any further revenue drops or unexpected expenses.

The other two options: cuts to public safety and other general fund services, or a 5-year local option levy, with dedicated funding for public safety, but no guarantee of success at the polls, and the resulting question - what happens in five years?

The city already has eliminated about 100 positions in five rounds of cuts over the past two years as the economic downturn took hold. But it's especially reticent to cut into core services such as police and fire, which each laid out their current status and outlook for coming years.

"We can't wait until the last minute," said Finance Director Sonia Andrews. "We would just have to cut a lot more if we wait 'til the last minute. That's why we need to start (working on answers) now."

More layoffs of police and fire forces could have wide-ranging impacts, from crime rates to insurance rates, and it's a distasteful option well beyond the squad cars and fire halls.

"Well, nobody wants to see their jobs cut," said Police Chief Sandi Baxter. "We all feel we want to keep that service at a high level.

At present, the rural fire district contracts with the city for fire and emergency medical services, and those residents pay for that contract. The partnership was especially beneficial in the 1990s, when the fire district funded construction of Bend's new fire stations, sparing city residents from a bond measure or other funding need.

If the city fire department is annexed into the district, the move would boost taxes by 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $28 a year for the owner of a home valued at $200,000.

Shifting to a dedicated fire funding source also would save the city $9 million to $10 million to put into police and other needs. (Redmond has been considering a similar move, to annex its fire department into the northern county's Rural Fire District No. 1.)

Among the benefits of such a step: dedicated fire/EMS funding, and aligning the taxing district with the area it serves.

Bend's fire annexation also would boost city dollars available to head off police cuts that Baxter suggested could lead to officers not being able to respond to business alarms, except for ones indicating a holdup was in progress.

During her presentation to the council, Baxter also listed various efforts to contain costs, such as grant applications for various needs and expanded use of volunteers, reserve officers, Explorers and interns. But this year's 110 FTE (full-time equivalent) workers are down 18 from last year, meaning response times go up.

Councilor Oran Teater said of the three options - police and fire cuts, a levy or a fire district annexation - the annexation probably would be the most palatable to the community, and Mayor Kathie Eckman and colleague Mark Capell agreed.

Colleague Tom Greene suggested proceeding with both the annexation and a 27-cent (per $1,000 assessed value) local option levy, to help police and build crucial reserve funds, but that didn't draw support from enough colleagues.

Councilor Jeff Eager said he was uncomfortable with either idea of raising revenue, blaming growth in city employee benefits for the shortfall.

City Manager Eric King noted that the projections include savings from a reduced cost of health care and benefits. Greene and Eager said workers need to make concessions by paying a bigger share of health insurance, as well as a portion of their retirement.

Councilor Jodie Barram said she also backed the long-term annexation option. So did colleague Jim Clinton, who like the finance director said Bend's property tax rate of $2.80 per $1,000 is low for a city its size, and voiced a familiar refrain heard during Bend's booming years of high growth - that growth does not pay for itself.

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