KPFD Faces Mixed Support For August M&O Levy Renewal Vote

The shadow of past property purchases may have nothing to do with the levy but could affect the vote.


Key Peninsula Fire District 16 will ask voters Aug. 6 to renew its Maintenance and Operations Levy, an $800,000-a-year ballot measure in place since 2012. The levy has been renewed by a 60% supermajority with ease every four years since.

But this time may be different. The question seems to have shifted from renewing an existing tax to maintain emergency services to broader concerns about accountability and trust in the district.

The lingering elephant in the room is the $2.125 million spent, or misspent depending on perspective, by the district board of commissioners on Key Center real estate in 2021 for a potential new headquarters building, training facility and health clinic.

It is a polarizing topic that’s left a sour taste in the mouths of both people in the community and in the fire stations that might cause this levy to go down in flames.

Opponents say the board, including current commissioners Randy Takehara, Stan Moffett and Shawn Jensen, wasn’t transparent about buying the properties while supporters say the past is in the past and the community should be focused on the future.

Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said he’s spent the past few months trying to make the point that “One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Even if the district never bought those properties, we need this levy to maintain our current staffing and level of service.”

Swinhart said he will continue to make that point before the August election. He and the commissioners will have an open forum July 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Key Center fire station where residents can learn about the levy and wildfire protection. He will also host his next monthly “Coffee with the Chief” Aug. 1 at 9 a.m. Renewing the levy would continue to cost property owners 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, which is about $68 annually for a property valued at $400,000.

The fire district, funded almost entirely by residential property taxes, relies on the M&O levy for about 6.5% of its annual budget. Though it doesn’t sound like a big chunk, without it the district could lose up to six full-time firefighters/paramedics. That could lead to the closure of one KP fire station and increased response times, according to Swinhart.

“The levy is important because it guarantees that we will be able to continue the services that we are currently bringing to the community,” said Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit. “The public has been giving the department this blessing since 2012. We are hopeful that it continues and that we get the voter turnout needed to pass.”

There are staunch supporters of the levy.

Vaughn resident Tom Buergel said that ever since he needed the help of first responders when he lived in Bellevue, he will always approve levies like this.

KPFD volunteer firefighter Garrett Cranford said his “inspiration to become a firefighter is because of the Key Peninsula Fire Department.”

There are also detractors, including district members fed up with the commissioners “not being truthful with the public.”

Then there are some leaning toward a yes vote who share a common caveat: the desire for increased accountability from the board.

One firefighter who spoke to KP News on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation said they will vote for the levy, but understands “A no vote may be needed to wake the board of commissioners up. They’re not handling the matters of the district well.”

Another said, “I feel like it’s saying, ‘We don’t have to be accountable to you because if you vote yes, then it’s business as usual, but if you vote no, then you lose services.’ That’s frustrating to think about.”

After Commissioner John “Pat” Kelly was elected to the board in 2023, he told KP News it was “iffy” whether he would vote to approve the levy, but he has since moved to support it. “We need the money, but I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to send a message,” he said.

“There’s still zero accountability for this terrible decision.”

Kelly referred to the district’s decision to buy two parcels of property near Key Peninsula Highway and Olson Drive nearly three years ago. KPFD has been under fire since it paid for the property at double its assessed value.

Recently retired KPFD Captain Robert Bosch thought having the properties was a good idea that lacked an implementation strategy.

“The idea was big and bold and needed more time to grow,” he said, “It’s way more complicated than (saying the fire district) paid too much for the property.”

It was just bad timing, Bosch said. During negotiations, former Fire Chief Dustin Morrow’s name came up for the top job at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue and he left just as the last purchase was finalized.

“That’s where it lost traction. Nobody else was prepared or briefed or was capable of communicating what the goal was,” Bosch said. “The vision was greater than what we see today, but unfortunately it got misread ... some could argue mishandled.”

“(Morrow) had a great plan and that was to get property to adequately train our members,” another district member said.

“That’s what our community deserves — a department that’s trained and skilled in its profession.” But the member added: “(When Morrow left) the board didn’t know what was going on with it, so they looked like buffoons when answering questions.”

Others don’t look as favorably on Morrow’s decisions.

“He was the beginning of some of the biggest problems our district currently faces,” said another fire district member on condition of anonymity. “Why would we need another fire station when our current stations are fine, and we aren’t even fully staffed at all of them?”

Claudia Jones, who was a fire commissioner from 2009 to 2015 and remains a longtime KPFD volunteer, credited Morrow for being ambitious, but didn’t think he researched what was available “to follow that dream of his.” She said to build something like he planned the district would run into logistical issues like The Mustard Seed Project faced successfully developing its assisted living campus: water, septic, permitting.

The issue of transparency has also been a point of contention. Some community members felt blindsided by the property purchase, accusing the board of making decisions without adequate public discussion.

“I don’t remember getting a heads-up about them buying the property, and for a number of my neighbors that was their big beef,” Buergel said.

“The commissioners make some weighty decisions with zero public discussion,” said another community member who regularly attends board meetings and asked to remain anonymous. “They have to have these discussions somewhere. That’s not transparency. We want to hear the discussions and how they arrived at a decision. Instead, it’s just silence, and then it’s done.”

There is time set aside for public comment at board of commissioner meetings, which are held the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at 5 p.m., but it’s not meant for questions and answers. If residents do have questions for board members, Board Chairman Randy Takehara advises them to use the email addresses listed on the KPFD website. He said each email will get a response. “We still get little to no feedback directly,” Takehara said.

“We’re sensitive to the fact there are community members out there that have distrust, and we make our decisions accordingly,” Takehara said. “At the end of the day, (board members) are KP residents who care about the community and the district, and we want the best services for everyone possible.”

Passing the levy is not as simple as getting more yes votes than nos. In order to pass, the levy needs a 60% supermajority and a minimum 40% voter turnout (based on the previous election). The latter number is a concern for one anonymous firefighter:

“The mistrust has built apathy and people may not vote at all.”

Jones said she doesn’t think 40% will turn out either.

“If it does fail, I plan on asking in an open forum that (Commissioners Jensen, Moffett and Takehara) submit their resignations so (newly appointed Commissioner Cambria Queen) and I can find some citizens who want to work hard to get this thing right,” Kelly said.

Swinhart said he is being realistic and filing to have the levy appear again on the November ballot in case the August attempt doesn’t go according to plan. If the levy fails both times, the district has stable funding through the end of 2024, when the current levy expires, he said

But it’s clear wherever the vote lands, those inside the fire stations are ready for this ballot to be over.

“The property purchase is said and done,” said firefighter Kevin Koehl. “We have to respond to emergencies on the KP, regardless.”

Volunteer firefighter Cranford agreed. “I think it’s time for us to move on. I’m ready for this ‘for or against’ to be done with, and I’m ready for this fire department to grow back to where it was. It’s going to take work and it’s not going to be easy.”

Update on the Key Center Properties

Nearly three years ago, the Key Peninsula Fire District spent $2.125 million on Key Center real estate for a new headquarters building, a training facility, and a health clinic.

KPFD will begin repaying the principal on the loans used to buy the property in December 2024, with payments of approximately $129,000 due twice a year until 2040, unless one or more of the properties are sold by then.

The corner parcel — known as the O’Callahan’s property after the former restaurant at the location — was bought specifically to house a new health clinic, but since then, Peninsula Community Health Services opened two miles away. Takehara said that the clinic meets the community’s needs and because of that, the fire district is entertaining offers for that parcel.

The board, however, isn’t actively trying to sell it because of high interest rates and low interest in the property itself. A recent offer to buy the property to open a daycare at the location was turned down by the board because it wasn’t willing to sell at that price.

Takehara addressed why the district didn’t inspect what appeared to be a derelict building before it was purchased.

“The plan is and was to demolish it, so we did not want to waste (taxpayer money) on one.”

The parcel behind O’Callahan’s, known as the Olson estate, is designated for the new fire station and training center. Takehara said that currently, KPFD must take personnel out of service or pay overtime to send them to training centers in Gig Harbor, Bremerton, and Lakewood, and a local training center would save on costs.

Once a new station is in operation, Takehara said that the current Key Center station would be put up for sale. That wouldn’t be soon enough, according to one fire district member who wished to remain anonymous.

“That building that calls itself the KPFD headquarters is a rusty tin can that needs to be brought down and repurposed. It’s exceeded its shelf life.”

Takehara doesn’t disagree. “This site is too small and is expanded to its absolute maximum for district needs. This would offset costs of the new construction, as well as give back retail frontage on the KP Highway.”

The district doesn’t have the funding in its budget to develop any of these buildings.

“If we were to build a new station, we would have to go out to bond,” said KPFD Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit.

One community member said, “I don’t see (a bond going out for vote) being successful with the current reputation and level of trust within the community.”

Another district member raised the question: “If there’s no money to build on it, is there even a reason to have it?”