A group of about 75 representatives of South Snohomish and North King County municipalities — including mayors, city councilmembers, city managers and fire chiefs — packed the third floor of Edmonds City Hall Monday night to learn more about what it takes to form a Regional Fire Protection Service Authority.
The meeting in the Brackett Room, which was open to the public, was hosted by Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper — himself a former firefighter — and included a presentation by two Puget Sound-area cities that have already implemented regional fire authorities — Auburn and Kent. In addition, Mountlake Terrace City Manager John Caulfield briefed the group on the nuts and bolts of creating a regional fire organization.
According to Cooper, mayors of the seven South Snohomish County cities have been talking for a few years about the regional fire service idea, and decided to get everyone into the same room to explore the concept in more detail. Among those attending Monday night were representatives from Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood, Brier, Mill Creek, Mukilteo, Shoreline, Bothell and Woodway, plus Snohomish County Fire Districts 1 and 7.
Regionalizing fire service makes sense for several reasons, officials say. For one thing, municipalities and fire districts often cross jurisdictional boundaries to assist with fires and medical emergencies. For another, there is the high cost of fire service equipment — a ladder truck alone costs $1.3 million — that could be shared among neighboring jurisdictions. And finally, there is the issue of efficiently using personnel. Do two fire stations located a mile from each other really each need their own fire chief, for example.
The Washington State Legislature in 2005 enacted a law — RCW 52.26 — that permits municipalities to combine resources and personnel to provide fire and emergency medical services on a regional basis. Cooper was actually involved in crafting the original legislation when he served in the Legislature, although the bill passed the year after he left.
A regional fire authority must be comprised of at least two or more adjacent fire districts or municipalities and must be approved by a majority vote of residents living in those districts. Before such a measure can be placed before voters, though, interested agencies/municipalities must establish a Planning Committee to create an Regional Fire Protection Service Authority plan. The City of Edmonds has already established a Planning Committee, consisting of Councilmembers D.J. Wilson and Lora Petso and Mayor Cooper.
For cash-strapped municipalities, the regional fire concept — which by law must be approved by voters — is attractive because it take the cost of fire protection out of the municipalities’ budget and funds fire services through a separate tax levy just for the fire service. Municipalities can also impose an additional fee, known as a benefit charge, for the regional service. Such a fee is a variable rate based on the square footage and the amount of fire service provided to a home or business. (Businesses with a greater fire risk, such as manufacturing or companies handling hazardous materials, would pay more.)
The assumption is that cities involved in a regional fire district would continue the normal property tax, although some cities have reduced the amount collected for regular property taxes to offset the fire service charge. However, representatives from Auburn and Kent who spoke Monday night said that neither municipality reduced taxes by as much as what they added via the new levy and charges, meaning that citizens end up paying more overall for general city government and fire services.
Under state law governing fire authorities, the benefit charge is not allowed to exceed 60 percent of the operating budget and the property tax can’t exceeed $1.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Edmonds residents currently pay about 65 cents per thousand assessed valuation, so they could end up paying more under such a plan, but Cooper said that the reason for looking at a regional fire service goes beyond the cost alone. For starters, as it currently stands, Edmonds has no say in the decisions that govern its fire service.
To ease its budget crunch, Edmonds sold its city fire department assets (fire trucks and equipment) to Snohomish County Fire District No. 1 in 2009, and all employees became Fire District 1 employees. Edmonds now contracts with Fire District 1 for fire services at a cost of $6.2 million annually, but Cooper said there is no guarantee that the cost will stay the same.
If — when its contract with the city expires in 2014 — Fire District 1 decided to raise its rate, the city would have no choice but to pay it or restart its own fire service. Because a regional fire authority includes on its governing board three representatives from each municipality, “it gives us the ability to govern rather than having to negotiate,” Cooper said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
A couple of citizens who attended Monday night’s meeting raised the question of whether regionalizing fire service is just an avenue for municipalities to add a tax. Speakers representing Auburn and Kent — both cities that were facing financial difficulties and cuts in fire service before the regional authority was established — stressed that they were very honest with voters about the purpose of the measure: That regionalizing would allow them to maintain current levels of service but their taxes would increase.
Cooper said that the city’s fire authority planning committee intends to take the process very slowly, and that it is likely to be a couple of years before Edmonds would consider putting such a measure before voters, especially since the city is now looking at the possibility of a general levy. It’s also possible the city may do the research and determine that being part of a regional fire district doesn’t make sense, he added.