KEIZERTIMES/File Photo

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Whether Keizer Fire District should or even can take over the Clear Lake neighborhood was the hot topic at the Keizer City Council meeting Monday night.

Councilors opted 6-1 to set a public hearing discussing whether the city of Keizer should assist in annexing the approximately 1,100 tax lots from the Marion County Fire District to the Keizer Fire District. Councilor David McKane was the lone no vote. The hearing was set for August 1.

Some councilors said their yes vote was not an endorsement of annexation so much as it was a vote to keep the discussion going.

“I think it was premature,” said Marion County Fire District Chief J. Kevin Henson. “But I understand they consider this part of the process.”

Keizer Fire officials said the Marion County Fire District’s decision to end an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) whereby KFD provided ambulance service to the Clear Lake neighborhood cost the district about $75,000 and provided an impetus to move forward on the proposed annexation.

Meanwhile, MCFD leaders contended the agreement was terminated because MCFD put an additional ambulance in service at Clear Lake Station 6, and merely sought to serve its own territory.

Attorneys for both sides offer contrasting legal theories for whether such an annexation is possible;  Keizer Fire is relying on statutes contained in Oregon Revised Statutes Chapter 222, which govern a city’s ability to annex territory from a special district into its own service area.

MCFD attorney Christopher Crean said the statutes are designed to allow a city to take territory from a special district only if it intends to provide service itself; for example, if the City of Salem annexed territory from a fire district in order to serve it via the Salem Fire Department, which is part of the city.

Crean also said the city could bear responsibility for as much as 8 percent of outstanding bond debt carried by MCFD – the Clear Lake neighborhood represents 8 percent of the assessed property value within MCFD – should it choose to annex the land into Keizer Fire. Crean also a “substantial cash exchange” would have to occur for an equitable transfer of assets in Clear Lake Station 6 from MCFD to KFD.

“This train is moving way too fast, and there are financial obligations that need to be addressed,” Crean said.

But Bob Blackmore, the Keizer Fire attorney, told the Keizertimes the only caveat is whether annexation is in the city’s best interests, and “there’s volumes of reasons this is in the city’s best interests.”

“And it’s not required that a city (have a department of its own) in the statute,” Blackmore added. “They’re simply trying to raise doubts and buy time.”

Explaining his no vote, McKane felt there were too many unanswered questions.

“I believe we have not done a good enough job sitting down with both organizations” to understand their viewpoint and arguments, McKane said. “We have work sessions on chickens. Can we have a work session on something more important than chickens?”

As far as service, Henson said a data study conducted in-house showed Keizer Fire District needed ambulance assistance 44 times during a five-week period. Joe Van Meter, president of the Keizer Fire District board, asserted the IGA between the two was effectively a 20-year subsidy from KFD to MCFD because ambulance service “doesn’t support itself in Keizer or anywhere else.”

Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan said annexing the Clear Lake area into north Keizer would lower their tax rate and also lower homeowner insurance rates because homes in KFD have a better fire suppression rating than do the Clear Lake homes served by MCFD. Numbers presented by KFD show homeowners in that area would see about a 35-cent per $1,000 decrease in property taxes if KFD were to provide emergency services there.

Randy Franke, president of the MCFD board, suggested the north Keizer neighborhoods’ desire to be part of KFD was exaggerated.

“What we have is eight people I know of that support this: The four board members from Vineyards Phase II, the three from Keizer Prairie, and the fourth (Keizer Prairie) that didn’t sign the letter: Chief Cowan,” Franke said.

Franke added there’s “no question in my mind the division of assets will end up in court because we won’t agree to anything we believe is unfair to the rest of our taxpayers.”