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Tuesday, January 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fairwood annexation sparks debate

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fairwood forum


"A Greater Renton — A Better Fairwood?"

A forum on the future of the Fairwood area, hosted by advocates of annexation to Renton, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24,

at the Fairwood Public Library, 17009 140th Ave. S.E.

For information from the other side, which advocates Fairwood incorporation, visit the Fairwood Task Force's Web site at www.gofairwood.com

Fairwood, a woodsy suburb southeast of Renton, may not fit the usual image of a city.

The main gathering places are the community shopping center, the high school and the golf course. Neighborhoods are mostly subdivisions of well-maintained but unspectacular single-family homes.

That hasn't stopped a citizens group, the Fairwood Task Force, from launching a drive to create a city of Fairwood, population 26,000, which would be the first new city in King County since Sammamish incorporated in 1999.

But the absence of a significant commercial tax base, and concerns that the new city would have difficulty paying its own way, led this month to the creation of another group that contends residents would be better off joining Renton.

At some point residents will get a chance to vote on their community's future. The state Boundary Review Board for King County will hold hearings, possibly as early as mid-March.

Both citizens groups recognize the area can't remain as it has been since the late 1960s, when Fairwood Golf & Country Club and the first large subdivision opened. King County says Fairwood and other urban unincorporated areas don't generate enough taxes to pay for police and other services, so services may have to be slashed sometime in the future.

J. Paul Blake, an organizer of A Greater Renton — A Better Fairwood, the group seeking annexation by Renton, said there appears to be broad support for becoming an independent city.

"Ultimately, I know it's probably a wild dream," Blake said of joining Renton. "I would love to see the 'Go Fairwood' people come to their senses and realize that it's not a viable option and potentially withdraw it."

A financial-feasibility study by Seattle's Berk & Associates found that a city of Fairwood could provide a slightly higher level of services than King County now provides, without raising taxes at the outset. The study was funded by King County.

But because Fairwood lacks a large shopping district, it would draw little revenue from sales tax and would depend heavily on property taxes. As King County's 39th city, Fairwood would rank last in sales-tax collections: $38 per resident, just behind Lake Forest Park at $40 and far behind first-place Tukwila at $935. Renton collects $310 per capita.

To maintain police, fire and other services, the Berk study assumed Fairwood city officials would ask voters to authorize higher property taxes after three years.

Blake, a Seattle Public Utilities executive, said the proposed city would struggle to pay for itself and residents would be better off joining Renton. Blake also called the incorporation drive an "elitist" attempt by "the country-club set" to avoid being linked with Renton's blue-collar image.

Ron Billock, a founder and past president of the pro-incorporation Fairwood Task Force, said Blake's talk about the country-club set is "very unfair and a tactic used to draw walls between people."

As for the proposed city's financial future, Billock said, "What the study does show is that for the level of taxes we are paying right now we would be able to increase our level of service. When you get real big, there are efficiencies, but there are also efficiencies when you have control and keep things from getting so large."

If the city of Fairwood found it had to choose between raising taxes and cutting services, that decision would be made by neighbors — not by a government based in Renton or Seattle, Billock said.

Not all Fairwood Golf & Country Club members support incorporation. Last year's club president, Mike Simmons, worries that the new city might impose new taxes on the golf club if it ran into financial trouble.

The Fairwood Task Force was created in 2003 to study local-governance options after King County launched an initiative to move 218,000 residents of urban unincorporated areas into cities either through incorporation or annexation to existing cities.

The task force concluded that incorporation was the best option because residents would have more control over local services and taxes.

Incorporation wouldn't resolve the future of the older, less-affluent Cascade area, located between Fairwood and Renton. King County is eager to see both areas join one or more cities, and for years, Renton has designated both as a "potential annexation area."

Cascade and Fairwood together have 41,500 residents.

Renton now is reviewing a petition by residents for annexation of most of the 8,300-resident East Highlands.

Renton also recently designated 14,000-resident West Hill — an area sandwiched between Renton and Seattle — a potential annexation area.

Berk & Associates studies funded by Renton say it would cost Renton $823,000 a year if Fairwood and Cascade joined the city. Annexing West Hill would cost Renton $2.4 million, the studies say. An East Highlands annexation would have virtually no impact on the city budget.

Renton hasn't taken a position on Fairwood incorporation or annexation, saying that's up to residents of the area. Lest residents make "a rash decision," Renton City Council President Randy Corman said, "I think that the people of Fairwood would be wise before they incorporate to at least take a wait-and-see, and see what Renton has to offer in the coming years."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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