Snohomish County Fire District 1 Chief Ed Widdis says the recent flap over the district’s retroactive billing for its union employees showcases the importance of creating some type of regionalized fire service.
“What I‘ve always said about these contracts is they were a Band-Aid,” Widdis said of the Fire District’s current agreements to provide fire service not only for Edmonds but also the cities of Brier and Mountlake Terrace. “It shows why we need to move forward with a true fire department, if you want to call it that, regionalized.”
In an hour-long interview Tuesday, Widdis – who has served as Fire District 1 chief since 2003 – also said he disagrees with the City of Edmonds’ assessment that the Fire District didn’t proactively communicate the possibility of significant retroactive pay adjustments that would be included in the fire district contract billing. It’s true that no one knew the exact amount of the increase, Widdis said, but there was no question that back pay would be involved.
Edmonds, along with the cities of Mountlake Terrace and Brier, received bills in August for two years of retroactive pay – covering both 2013 and 2014 – after Fire District 1 completed labor negotiations with the union representing the district’s firefighters and paramedics. You can see the entire invoice here.
All three cities indicated they were surprised by the amount of the increase, and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Finance Director Scott James said in an interview Oct. 1 that all signs they saw pointed to minimal increases.
Widdis said the $1.67 million that Edmonds was billed for – 12 percent over the 2010 base for 2013 and 14 percent over the 2010 base for 2014 – really represents a 3.5 percent annual increase over five years, since two years of pay was deferred. In addition, when the fire district began cutting costs due to struggling economic conditions, the union agreed to defer nearly all of a planned cost-of-living increase beginning in 2012, taking only one month in January 2012 and delaying the rest. This also meant that the city’s contract fee did not increase as it would have if the cost-of-living raise had not been deferred, he said.
As a result, Widdis said he didn’t find the two years of pay increases agreed to during union negotiations surprising, “when you look that they haven’t really had an increase in five years.”
Widdis said he believes that when city officials and citizens said they were taken aback by the amount, it’s because “they are looking at it for a two-year jump,” rather than retroactive pay increases covering a longer time span. “They looked at that $1.6 million, divided it in half for two years and divided it by 50 firefighters and that’s what they got, but in truth in went back five years,” Widdis said.
“Yeah, maybe they (the cities) didn’t pay like they did in 2010-11 because everything was status quo,” he added. “We enjoyed that in the sense of not paying for it for four years but it (the increase) will get you sooner or later,” he said.
Widdis also addressed the statement made recently by City of Edmonds officials that the Fire District 1/City of Edmonds contract required quarterly meetings between the Fire Chief, the Mayor and City Council representatives.
“I see every mayor a lot more than once a quarter,” Widdis said. “I’m meeting with the mayors probably once a month; it’s about a lot of things. We do communicate quite a bit.”
Widdis noted that while the contract states that the format and topic of the reports are supposed to be determined by the District Fire Chief and the Mayor, there is no requirement of exactly what should be covered during those meetings.
Even though Widdis believes the Fire District is fulfilling the terms of its contract, it’s clear that city officials believe that communication is lacking, and the fire chief said he is committed to improving the situation. One idea that has been discussed among both city officials and the current five-member commission that governs the fire district: forming a Fire Advisory Board that includes a representative from each city.
The thought is that such a board would provide a voice for cities who currently don’t have a seat on the commission, since they are contracting with the Fire District and don’t have an elected official representing them at the table.
Meanwhile, Widdis said he is continuing to meet with finance directors from all three contracted cities to answer questions about the retroactive bills they received.
Among the questions raised were the amounts the district charged for administration, maintenance and operations, “so we are going back and showing them all the numbers and going through it,” he said.
“Really it’s due diligence,” Widdis said. “When you get a bill that like you shouldn’t be just sitting there, at any cost. We should go back and forth on it.
In addition, the commission has agreed to delay the due date of payments — which had been initially extended from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31, and will work with the cities to set up payment plans.
The Fire District is also doing all it can to ensure a relatively speedy resolution to the 2015 labor contract, which is now being negotiated, Widdis said. The hope is to have that settled by the end of the year.
Returning specifically to concerns raised by the City of Edmonds, Widdis said that for all the swirl about overcharges and bad communication, the contract did allow the city to realize the exact savings it projected that it would through the contract.
“The city said, ‘We think if we contract with the district that we can save up to $5.8 million in five years. At the end of five years…it’s actually $6 million we saved,” he said.
The status of fire service regionalization
The bigger picture, Widdis said, is that it would be better for fire districts and cities to join forces and regionalize – a sentiment expressed five years ago by both city and fire officials when the Edmonds agreed to a 20-year contract with Fire District 1. That’s because fire service is expensive and regionalizing it allows staffing and other resources – such as fire trucks and related apparatus – to be spread more uniformly throughout the fire stations.
Regionalization was a concept mentioned several times when the City of Edmonds began looking at contracting with Fire District, which some hoped would be a short-term fix to a longer-term challenge. In fact, in October 2009, then-Edmonds Fire Chief Thomas Tomberg said: “I hope we won’t have a contract for 20 years,” he said. “I hope we look at a regional fire authority.”
Under a regional approach, a crew from one station can be sent to staff another station when personnel are called away to an emergency. In addition, other decisions — from where to locate a new fire station to methods for improving response times — can be made based on what is best for the entire region, rather than for one city. “Regional planning always trumps city planning, where parochial interests prevail,” Tomberg said at the time.
The idea picked up steam in early 2011, when 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’s Brackett Room to learn more about what it takes to form a Regional Fire Protection Service Authority.
Nine jurisdictions, including the City of Edmonds, had initially expressed interest in pursuing the RFA concept but after two years of meetings, the group had dwindled to just three members – Mountlake Terrace, Brier and Fire District 1, but Widdis said he’s hopeful that recent changes in state law, which make it easier to start with a smaller group of municipalities and add others over time, will renew enthusiasm for the idea.
Widdis said that Fire District 1 is still discussing the idea of regionalization with both the cities of Mukilteo and Lynnwood, which currently have their own fire departments. But he believes that regionalization should eventually cover from “Everett or Marysville to the county line.”
Whether regionalizing fire service would cost taxpayers more would really be up to the jurisdictions implementing the concept, Widdis said. All property owners (city and unincorporated) would pay a fire benefit charge linked to fire risk associated with their property. This would go directly to the regional fire authority. Since fire service would be provided and funded through the RFA, cities would no longer have to pay for it out of their coffers.
Each city would have to decide whether to reduce taxes (since cities no longer would be funding fire service) or to continue the same tax rate and apply the money saved on fire service to other municipal needs, Widdis explained. 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.