Taxing changes for consolidated rural fire district ‘a straight wash,’ but may rely on cooperation from township leaders
photo by: Dylan Lysen
Rural Douglas County residents living within a proposed consolidated fire district could see a slight decrease or no change to their taxes for fire protection if the consolidation is completed later this year.
However, that may rely on the leaders of the involved townships keeping their side of the bargain, which includes decreasing the township residents’ property taxes to account for the fire department operations moving to a new, separate taxing district.
Chief Mike Baxter of the Wakarusa Township Fire Department, who has been spearheading the effort to consolidate the fire departments, told the Journal-World that is the plan, as he understands it.
“They are just going to take (the estimated) mills off the top,” Baxter said of Wakarusa Township. “So as far as the townships go, (they won’t) be increasing any mill levy in one direction or another. It’s just a straight wash across the board.”
In more specific terms, rural residents in the new fire district should expect their next property tax bills to increase by about 5.5 mills — or about $125 in taxes on a $200,000 home — to support the new fire district. But townships who are partnering in the creation of the fire district essentially are making a political promise to reduce their budgets significantly to account for the fact those townships no longer will be responsible for providing fire protection. A review by the Journal-World found that, in most cases, if townships remove all their fire department spending from their budgets, the tax rate for each township would decrease by 5.5 mills or more.
That would leave taxpayers paying essentially the same amount in taxes, though the amount would be split between two entities instead of a sole township. That’s exactly how leaders of the fire district movement have designed the process to work. The key, though, will be for township boards to follow through on the tax cutting promise come budget time this summer. A review by the Journal-World found some townships will have to decrease their budgets significantly to meet the pledge. For example, Wakarusa Township, will have to cut more than a half-million dollars — or about a third of its entire spending — for the tax swap to work as planned.
The shifting comes as four Douglas County township fire departments and two county fire districts are in the process of consolidating into one large fire district — which would be known as Consolidated Fire District No. 1 and would serve a majority of the rural parts of Douglas County beginning in 2021. But county officials have said the financial impact is unclear and would remain unclear until the budgeting process for the new district begins later this summer.
To understand the possible impact, the county provided the Journal-World with tax estimates that the residents for each township and fire district would currently be paying if the proposed consolidated fire district was operating this year. The estimates appear to show most of the residents will either be providing the same or a slightly decreased amount of tax revenue toward fire protection under the consolidated district.
Comparing the budgets
As part of their proposal to consolidate the fire departments into one, the fire chiefs estimated a 5.5 mill levy would be needed for the new fire district to provide about the same amount of funding that the fire departments separately use now.
Budget and tax comparision
Assessed values used for current budget year:
Fire District No. 1: $21,459,572
Fire District No. 4: $6,230,953
Total assessed value: $189,396,303
If Consolidated District No. 1 existed today:
Wakarusa: $560,365 — 5.5 mills
Eudora: $127,968 — 5.5 mills
Clinton: $57,118 — 5.5 mills
Kanwaka: $143,931 — 5.5 mills
Fire District No. 1: $118,028 — 5.5 mills
Fire District No. 4: $34,270 — 5.5 mills
Total tax dollars: $1,041,680, or 5.50 mills
The separate spending from township fire departments/districts today:
Wakarusa Township: Estimated $560,000 — 5.496 mills
Eudora Township: $132,347 — 5.688 mills
Clinton Township: $65,356 — 6.29 mills
Kanwaka Township: Estimated $150,000 — 5.7 mills
Fire District No. 1: $111,962 — 5.217 mills
Fire District No. 4: $33,344 — 5.35 mills
Total estimated tax dollars Today: $1,053,009 or 5.55 mills
If the consolidated fire district was operating during the current budget year, the county estimated a 5.5 mill levy would have provided a revenue of about $1,041,680 for the consolidated district this year. That is about $11,320 less than what the separate fire departments estimate they are collecting currently, which is about $1,053,000.
Baxter said the number comes in a bit shorter than their current budgets because the fire chiefs wanted to make sure they were close to what they are spending now, but not spending more.
“We don’t want to go higher; we don’t want to overtax the citizens,” Baxter said. “But we wanted to make sure we are successful in this. We don’t want to under tax our revenue and come back the next year and say, ‘We’re in the hole.’
“We wanted to make sure we had good, solid numbers we knew we could operate off of,” he added.
Baxter said he estimated his fire department spends about $560,000 a year, which is about the same amount the residents of Wakarusa Township would be providing toward the consolidated fire district with a 5.5 mill levy. Under those numbers, Wakarusa Township’s tax base would provide more than half of the new fire district’s overall tax revenue.
Clinton, Eudora and Kanwaka township residents would all see a slight decrease, as their current contributions toward fire protection are all more than the 5.5 mill levy.
But not everyone will see a decrease. The residents who would see an increase are those of the current Fire District No. 1, which serves the Lecompton Township, and Fire District No. 4, which serves the northern part of Marion Township. But the taxing difference may be minimal.
Fire District No. 1 — which has an assessed value of $21,459,572 — currently uses a mill levy of 5.217, providing $111,962, according to the fire district’s budget submitted to the state. To reach the 5.5 mill levy under the consolidated plan, it would see an increase to its tax rate by 0.29 mills, providing a total of $118,028.
The difference in raw numbers, according to the estimate, is about a $6,000 increase of tax revenue from Lecompton Township. From a taxing standpoint, a Lecompton Township resident with a $200,000 home would pay $119.99 in taxes under the current levy, but $126.50 under the consolidation, which is about a $6.50 increase per year in property taxes.
For Fire District No. 4, the increase is even smaller. The residents there currently provide $33,344, but that contribution would increase to $34,270. That’s a total increase of $926, or an increase of less than $3.50 for a $200,000 home in that district.
When asked about the increase to Fire District No. 1, Baxter said he had not heard of any concerns about a possible tax increase. Representatives for Fire District No. 1 did not return the Journal-World’s calls for comment.
New taxing district
Although the county’s estimates show a decrease in overall tax revenue for the consolidated fire district, that may need to be taken with a grain of salt, as two of the included township fire department estimates come from complicated budgets.
Baxter said the amounts Wakarusa and Kanwaka townships put toward fire protection are complicated to figure because those townships do not specifically set apart their funding to the fire protection within their budgets like some other townships. Baxter said both departments had to come up with rough estimates for how much they operate on, rather than exact numbers.
For Wakarusa, Baxter estimated the department spends about $560,000 a year. Kanwaka spends “close to” $150,000, he said. A representative for the Kanwaka Township Fire Department did not return the Journal-World’s calls to verify.
However, moving to a consolidated fire district would mean one budget for what is now spread over six different budgets. Additionally — as seen through the Fire District No. 1 and Fire District No. 4 budgets that were submitted to the state — how much money is going toward fire protection is much easier to understand, as the district’s funding is only used for that purpose. Baxter said that the budgeting process would be much simpler and is another benefit to the consolidation.
But it also means that interested residents of the four townships will need to keep their eyes on one more budget. Rather than just having a single township budget that covers their roads and fire protection services, it will now be split into two separate budgets and mill levies.
County Administrator Sarah Plinsky previously told the Journal-World the county will hold an annual public budget hearing for the district, which will give residents the opportunity to advocate for a lower budget if they so choose.
Plinsky also previously said the involved residents’ township taxes will decrease, because the townships will no longer be collecting revenue from the residents to fund fire services. She said the townships agreed to lower their taxes to offset the taxing change.
For example, Wakarusa Township will be expected to remove 5.5 mills from its tax levy, which would account for about $560,000 from its annual budget. According to the township’s 2020 budget submitted to the state, that’s about a third of its overall tax revenue.
Charles Taylor, the trustee for the Wakarusa Township, told the Journal-World this week that it is indeed the township’s plan.
“That 5.5 mills will just come out of our budget and go straight into the fire district,” he said.
Consolidation close to completion
The Douglas County Commissioners recently gave initial approval to the second part of a two-phase consolidation plan. In June, commissioners will consider giving final approval, which would change the name of the newly created district to Consolidated Fire District No. 1.
When fully consolidated, the newly created fire district would cover the majority of the rural area of the county, except for the areas already covered by the county’s Fire District No. 2, which serves the Palmyra Township, and Fire District No. 3, which serves the Willow Springs Township. The Palmyra and Willow Springs townships are in the southeast and south-central parts of the county, respectively.
Additionally, the southern portion of Marion Township, in the southwest corner of the county, is served by an Osage County fire district, and Grant Township, located north of Lawrence, has contracted fire services through Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.
The chiefs of the involved fire departments proposed the consolidation plan to the county in March, noting it would help them provide better services to their constituents. Baxter said at the time the consolidation would not result in any loss of services, but would streamline all of the departments’ efforts.
“We’re not removing any piece of equipment, station or personnel — nothing,” he said at the time. “We’re unifying services to get stronger as a single entity, instead of multiple entities.”
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