On Aug. 6, voters in the Wright City and Innsbrook areas will decide on a proposed 17-cent tax increase for the Wright City Fire Protection District.
District officials have warned that without the tax increase, labeled Proposition S, there is a strong possibility of layoffs for about half of the district’s full-time professional firefighters.
Prop S would add 17 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation to real estate and personal property taxes in the district. That would mean about $65 more per year for a $200,000 home.
The fire district’s current tax levy is 41.26 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
District officials say layoffs would mean dropping from four paid firefighters on each shift to two firefighters.
That would mean less effective fire response and more reliance on aid from other fire districts, Wright City fire officials previously told the Record. In the case of a burning house, Wright City firefighters might have to wait for backup from Warrenton or Wentzville before entering and fighting the fire from inside officials said.
Opponents of previous failed tax proposals have argued that Wright City Fire should solve its staffing challenge by recruiting and retaining more volunteer firefighters. Fire chief Ron MacKnight and members of the fire district’s board of directors have pointed to declining volunteerism to say that approach won’t work. It’s a trend shared by fire districts across the U.S.
In making a decision about Prop S, voters will be asked to weigh the cost of the tax against the risk of reduced quality fire protection. Depending on the situation, having to wait for aid from other fire districts could worsen the damage in a structure fire.
Wright City Fire also uses its four-man crews to respond to vehicle crashes, life-threatening medical calls and other rescue operations, where the district says more hands lead to better outcomes.
Home insurance costs
One of the common arguments in support of Prop S relates to how the quality of fire service affects insurance for homes and businesses.
Supporters, including the district’s board of directors and fire chief, have stated on multiple occasions that fewer firefighters on duty could mean increased insurance costs.
The Record checked with several insurance industry experts at the local and regional level, and confirmed that this claim is generally true, but not a guarantee.
In short, if Wright City Fire Protection District is forced to lay off staff, it’s likely the diminished service quality would affect an assessment known as the district’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating. This is a rating used by insurance providers to help calculate insurance costs.
But it’s uncertain when residents might notice a change to their insurance, if any. Fire service is only one of several factors used to determine the cost of property insurance, and different insurance companies calculate costs differently.
The first piece of this puzzle is understanding how fire services are evaluated. Insurance companies mostly get their information about fire coverage from ISO, a national business that provides services and information to insurance companies.
ISO ratings apply to both homes and business properties, meaning area employers also have a stake in this system.
ISO has an evaluation process to rate the effectiveness of local fire response. Fire districts receive a score from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best.
Wright City Fire Protection District currently has an ISO rating of 4.
According to information from ISO, about half of a fire district’s ISO rating comes from emergency communications and water infrastructure, and half comes from the fire department itself. The fire department evaluation includes factors such as type and extent of training, number of people who participate in training, and firefighter response to emergencies.
Wright City Fire officials state that with half as many professional staff responding to calls, the district’s fire response capability will suffer, and could cause a drop in the district’s current ISO rating.
If there is a change in Wright City Fire staffing, it isn’t clear when that might affect the district’s ISO rating. ISO would have to re-evaluate the district, and it’s hard to say when that would happen.
According to ISO, evaluations can be triggered by periodic community surveys, or computer-aided monitoring for news about big changes to fire service.
Prior to Wright City Fire’s latest ISO evaluation in 2014, the district had not been evaluated since 1997, when it was an all-volunteer service. The rating in 2014 improved from a 6 to a 4, with the addition of 24/7 professional staff being partly credited for the improvement.
The next step is factoring ISO ratings into homeowner and property insurance rates.
Supporters of Prop S have argued that local residents could end up paying more no matter how the ballot issue performs. More taxes if Prop S passes, more insurance if it fails.
Fire officials are cautious about making specific comparisons, but other supporters believe the costs would be similar in either scenario, or possibly higher for insurance than the added taxes.
Insurance experts contacted by the Record said that prediction is possible, but by no means a guarantee.
Representatives at the Shelter Insurance headquarters in Columbia said it would make sense for a negative change in ISO rating to lead to an increase in the cost of insurance. But it’s a little more complicated than direct cause-and-effect, because other factors are at play.
First of all, every insurance company has a different system for assessing the risks involved in determining the cost of insurance. How the ISO rating converts to monetary cost can change depending on which company is doing the math.
Secondly, fire response is only one out of a number of factors considered for insurance, others being location, local crime, previous insurance claims and other considerations.
Jay MacLellan, director of public relations for Shelter Insurance, said a negative change in ISO rating could be balanced out by a positive change somewhere else.
“If nothing else changes, there’s a chance that yes, (cost of insurance) could go up. But exactly how much is hard to say,” MacLellan commented.
He said it is conceivable that Prop S supporters are right, and that a tax could cost less than what insurance customers would pay with fewer firefighters.
But that scenario isn’t certain, and it’s hard to pinpoint if insurance rates would change as drastically as some Prop S supporters claim. The difference would be based on a case-by-case assessment, MacLellan said.