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Hoquiam Council unanimously backs RFA plan

The Hoquiam City Council unanimously approved on Monday a resolution to place a Hoquiam and Aberdeen fire department merger proposition on the November general election ballot.

Now, it’s up to the Aberdeen City Council to do the same. Both councils must approve the Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority (RFA) plan before it can go before the voters.

“I’d like to acknowledge the hard work put in by the staff and consultants that we’ve worked with and the mayors and City Council members from both cities that have worked on the committee and worked to put this together,” said Hoquiam Councilman Steven Puvogel. “It’s a pretty solid plan and, from here, it goes to the voters.”

With 100% council approval, much of the discussion ahead of the unanimous vote centered around preparing the council for the questions they were sure to get about the RFA plan, and the property tax increase associated with it.

A new “benefits charge” to fund the RFA, based on square footage of improved properties, would add hundreds of dollars annually to Aberdeen and Hoquiam property tax bills, but proponents of the plan point out it would also fund an additional six fire personnel and help bolster what’s been called “anemically staffed” departments in both cities, among other benefits.

“Just based on initial pushback I think we should very quickly prepare ourselves for questions and rebuttal,” said Councilman Jim George. “Factual-based, short, understandable response to the public. Because if it’s long, if it sounds like government BS, if it sounds like an excuse for raising taxes, it ain’t gonna fly.”

The council and city staff, per law, are not allowed to “campaign” for the plan, said Finance Director Corri Schmid.

“We are allowed to educate, but not to tell people how to vote,” she said.

Schmid and City Administrator Brian Shay said the city would work on putting together a fact sheet about the positives and negatives of the plan, and make it available to the public, after guidance from the state Public Disclosure Commission.

“Because there are pros and cons with this — as with anything we do — we can say, this is what the pros are, this is what the cons are, and it’s up to the citizens to make the decision from there,” said Puvogel.

“After we get an election certified in November, we’re going to be taking action one way or another, depending on what our citizens tell us. As a private citizen, we can take our own action to speak for or against this measure, but really it’s the city’s responsibility to explain what it is and get the facts right.”

The Aberdeen City Council will take up the same resolution at its meeting tonight. If they approve it with a simple majority, the ballot proposition will be submitted to the County Auditor’s Office by the Aug. 3 deadline. Because of the plan’s funding structure, the proposition will need a 60% supermajority of yes votes among the collective voters of both cities to pass.

Earlier in the meeting, the council approved an extension of the current Hoquiam EMS levy of 50 cents per $100,000 assessed value.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Reid stressed that this was not related to the RFA, but a continuation of an ambulance levy previously approved by the voters. That extension will also be on the November ballot.

“If the RFA is approved by the voters, a year afterward they would also have to approve the funding for the RFA, so the RFA would ask for the EMS levy to be approved again, so it will go through the voters a second time,” explained Schmid.