In less than two months, Snohomish County Fire District 1 will be providing fire service to City of Edmonds residents, following a 6-1 Edmonds City Council vote last night to approve a 20-year contract with the regional fire authority. Councilmember Steve Bernheim was the single dissenting vote.
As of Jan. 1, 2010, all city fire department staff will become employees of Fire District 1. Agreement terms call for the city to retain ownership of the fire stations and land, and also keep the emergency medical services transportation fees the city now charges to residents when they need emergency transport. In addition, the city will sell all of its fire apparatus (engines, aid cars and equipment) to the fire district.
“Edmonds is taking an important step toward regionalization,” said Councilmember Strom Peterson in reiterating his support for the proposal. Need for a regional, rather than city-based, approach to fire service was a main theme during weeks of council discussion, along with the contract’s ability to save the cash-strapped city some money and to further enhance — through Fire District 1’s additional training opportunities and a focus on public education — the city’s already reputable fire service.
“It will reduce our deficit over the next seven years by a cumulative $10 million,” Councilmember Ron Wambolt said. “Service levels will not only be maintained, they will be gradually enhanced.”
But it was the low morale caused by ongoing fights during every council budget cycle to maintain high levels of fire service — described by Edmonds Firefighters Union Local 1828 President Tim Hoover during testimony at the Oct. 14 council meeting — that Council President D.J. Wilson cited as his primary reason for supporting the agreement. “I will be voting for it and hope that we won’t be regretting it 10 years from now,” said Wilson, who in past meetings had expressed concerns about the length of the contract and the city’s inability to quickly get out it if necessary.
As the lone “no” vote, Berheim said he believes that one of a city government’s main functions is to provide its citizens with fire service, “and I would prefer to keep that in-house and continue to manage it.” Because City of Edmonds voters don’t participate in Fire District 1 elections, “we’re giving up fire control to a fire district whose commissioners are elected outside of our city entirely,” Bernheim added.
Even though the price tag of $6.2 million (for the first year anyway, as the cost will be adjusted annually based on cost-of-living and other related labor expenses) is less than the city would pay to operate its own fire service, councilmembers agreed that the move will not solve the city’s estimated $7 million budget deficit. In fact, the council — which could change significantly in composition depending on the outcome of tonight’s race to fill three council seats — will face some tough budget choices in the coming months that could involve further cuts to city departments or a decision to put a levy before taxpayers.