By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Voters may decide whether the City of Keizer and the Keizer Fire District will annex several north Keizer neighborhoods after all.

Wednesday evening, the Keizer Fire Board approved an agreement with the Keizer City Council that sets the stage for the annexing Clear Lake neighborhood into the Keizer Fire District coverage area.

The agreement states that the city of Keizer will withdraw the Clear Lake neighborhood from Marion County Fire District No. 1 and annex it, and the Keizer Fire District will assume fire service coverage for the area.

City councilors are expected to discuss the issue at their meeting Monday, Aug. 1. District officials are hoping for a quick approval that will allow them to put the issue before Keizer voters in November.

The decision is a reversal of the fire district’s original strategy to avoid the ballot box, but Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan said the change of plans is more about allaying any doubts about what is best for Keizer than concerns over their original tactics.

“A vote brings the process up to the gold standard of the will of the people,” Cowan said.

It is also expected to provide more bulletproof protection against appeals expected by MCFD1 throughout the process. Keizer Fire District will assume the costs of placing the annexation measure on the ballot. The Keizer City Council needs to approve the agreement by Aug. 8 to ensure there’s time to get the measure on the ballot. Failing to meet that deadline would push the annexation vote to March 2012.

KFD officials are hoping for expediency on the part of the council after a letter circulated in the Clear Lake neighborhood by the MCFD1 Fire Board. In the letter, Board President Randy Franke states that the district plans to issue the second half of a $10 million bond, approved by MCFD voters, in the next 90 days. MCFD1 has already issued $5 million in bonds, and hope to issue the second $5 million.

By confirming the agreement before MCFD1 issues the bonds, it would absolve Clear Lake residents from liability for the unissued bonds even though the annexation vote would not take place for several months, said Bob Blackmore, an attorney for Keizer Fire District.

“If the city takes action by ordinance, we believe the residents will not be responsible for the new bonds issued,” Blackmore said.

Because the process of withdrawal and annexation has not been executed before in Oregon, there remains some question as to how courts would decide the issue if it reaches that point in the appeal process. If Clear Lake residents are able to dodge liability for the new bonds, they would pay $2.06 per $1,000 of assessed value under Keizer Fire District protection, down from the current rate of $2.42 residents pay under MCFD1.

While KFD and city officials have often repeated the mantra, “Let Keizer be Keizer,” the issue is one of survivability for KFD, Cowan said.

“Annexing Clear Lake neighborhood lays the groundwork for how we will grow with the city in the future,” he said.