Bellevue voters will be asked to approve two property-tax measures, one for seismic upgrades to fire stations and another to relieve neighborhood traffic congestion and pedestrian safety. But uproar about displacing homeowners for a new fire station could undermine levy support.
A property-tax levy to bring city fire stations up to current seismic codes doesn’t usually generate much controversy. Voters typically consider fire stations, like schools, essential public facilities whose occupants should be safe in an earthquake.
But in Bellevue, one part of a 20-year, $120 million fire facilities levy on the November ballot calls for a new downtown station to ensure rapid response times for all the new high-rise office and apartment buildings in the commercial center.
Last month, the city sent notices to six property owners in the Northtowne neighborhood, a single-family area immediately north of downtown at 112th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 12th Street, alerting them that the city planned to acquire their land for the new station.
New downtown fire station
A public meeting to discuss the planned new fire station and how a site was selected will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Bellevue Public Safety Training Center, 1838 116th Ave. N.E., Bellevue.
City of Bellevue
The timing, and the resulting uproar among Northtowne residents, could undermine support for the ballot measure, which would fund the design and construction of the new downtown station as well as retrofit the city’s nine other stations, which on average are 38 years old.
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The city says it considered 18 different properties for the new station, all of which would have displaced residents or businesses. “It’s very difficult to find undeveloped property in or near downtown,” said Nora Johnson, Bellevue Civic Services director, who led the site-selection process.
The City Council last year approved $7.25 million to buy land for the new station. Downtown is currently served by stations in Clyde Hill and at Southeast Eighth Street and Bellevue Way.
Johnson said the city had narrowed the search to three properties, all near 112th and 12th, when it learned that part of its preferred site was under contract and could be redeveloped if the city didn’t move to acquire the land.
The decision angered many Northtowne residents who say it was made without warning or consultation. About 70 people petitioned the City Council for more information about the site-selection process.
“This was done in secrecy, without input from the affected residents. It’s undemocratic and it’s wrong,” said Richard Edgar, 89, who with his wife Frances, 91, built a new, handicapped-accessible home in 2008 so they wouldn’t have to move again.
The city will hold a public meeting on the proposed new downtown station and the site-selection process Tuesday night.
The levy has attracted other opponents who question why, if emergency response times and seismic safety are such important issues, the city isn’t paying for the upgrades out of its capital projects’ budget.
Pamela Johnston, a Bridle Trails resident, said she’s also concerned that under the fire facilities work plan, the station retrofits are spread out over the next 10 years, meaning the last station won’t get seismic upgrades until 2026.
“Are the facilities needed? Yes. Are the upgrades optional? No. We should prioritize critical services within the city budget. Why are we being asked to vote?” asked Johnston, who wrote the opposition statement to the fire levy in the Voter’s Guide.
Officials say the city’s list of capital projects exceeds projected revenue by more than $800 million over the next 20 years. The last time Bellevue went to voters to approve a levy was in 2007, said Toni Call, interim finance director.
She noted that Bellevue has the lowest property tax rate of any city in the state with more than 20,000 people — 98 cents per $1,000 assessed value in 2015, compared to $1.63 for Seattle, $1.49 for Redmond and $1.46 for Kirkland.
If approved by voters, the fire facilities levy would increase homeowners’ city property taxes by 12.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $80 a year for a median-value, $640,000 home.
Proponents of the levy say it’s not just about a new downtown station, but about citywide response times and saving rates.
“We want our firefighters to be able to get out of the station and help members of the public if there’s a big earthquake and not be digging themselves out,” said City Council member Jennifer Robertson.
A second property-tax measure on the Bellevue ballot would address traffic and safety. The 20-year, $140 million levy would identify projects to ease neighborhood congestion and add sidewalks and bike lanes. The levy would cost the owner of a median-valued home 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $96 a year.
Many of the sidewalk and pedestrian crossing projects address walking routes to schools, shopping areas and community centers, said Ron Kessack, assistant director of transportation. The neighborhood congestion-relief projects focus on vehicle access and travel within and between neighborhoods and include traffic calming and cut-through traffic.
The bike-safety projects include adding 30 miles of new bike lanes to the city’s existing 29 miles. Kessack said Bellevue has put only one arterial on a “road diet ”— reducing a four-lane road to three in order to add bike lanes on either side.
He said any additional loss of vehicle lanes would have to be approved in advance by the City Council with traffic impacts monitored before and after the change.
With REI planning to move its headquarters to Bellevue within the next few years, Kessack said, hundreds more bike commuters are expected.
Some residents are concerned that the projects to be funded under the levy have not all been identified, so no cost estimates or construction timelines are available. David Plummer, who wrote the “no” statement on the transportation levy for the voters’ guide, said the measure gives the City Council wide latitude to spend the money on whatever projects they want.