Council takes closer look at fire service staffing, votes to keep meeting remotely

Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson, top row-second from right, and city councilmembers meet with South County Fire representatives Tuesday night.

The Edmonds City Council took a closer look Tuesday night at options for amending the city’s contract with South County Fire to address a long-term service imbalance — a decision that will cost the taxpayers between $1.5 million and $2.25 million annually.

The council also voted 5-0 to continue meeting remotely in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, noting in particular a recent increase in coronavirus cases in Edmonds. (Edmonds’ Madrona K-8 school was closed until Nov. 1 after 26 cases were recorded there.) Councilmember Kristiana Johnson abstained from voting and Councilmember Diane Buckshnis was absent. The council agreed to reconsider the idea of moving to a hybrid meeting format at the end of November.

The council didn’t vote Tuesday night on the South County Fire contract amendment; a decision is set for its next meeting on Monday, Nov. 1. That meeting will be a day earlier than normal because Nov. 2 is election day.

The City of Edmonds has contracted since 2010 with South County Fire (and its predecessor, Snohomish County Fire District 1) to provide fire and emergency medical services. Before that time, the city operated its own fire department. In 2017, the city council voted to amend the interlocal agreement between the two entities to change the staffing model, with the goal of saving an estimated $1.4 million annually. The amendment reduced the total number of firefighters on duty at any given time from eleven to nine, with three at each station. (Since one of the three firefighters at each station is required to be a paramedic, the total number of paramedics increased from two to three.)

In an Oct. 5 presentation to the council, City Attorney Jeff Taraday explained that the amended 2017 agreement included new formulas that were primarily intended to measure the amount of time that units from one jurisdiction — for example, Lynnwood — responded into another jurisdiction, like Edmonds. The formulas were aimed at addressing concerns of fire officials that the staffing reductions would result in surrounding jurisdictions essentially “subsidizing Edmonds,” Taraday said.

At issue is the neighboring unit utilization factor (NUUF). It measures the amount of time that Edmonds units respond to calls for service outside of Edmonds and then compares that to the amount of time that non-Edmonds units respond to calls for service in Edmonds.

Under the agreement, balance is achieved when those two amounts of time are within 10% of one another. “The data shows that the neighboring cities are responding into Edmonds significantly more than Edmonds units are responding into neighboring cities like Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace,” Taraday told the council Oct. 5.

According to South County Fire data, the NUUF from Mountlake Terrace into Edmonds is 157% and Lynnwood into Edmonds is 252%. Those numbers would have to be at 110% to be considered in balance, and being out of balance triggers a reopening of the contract and brings the parties back to the bargaining table, the city attorney said.

Both South County Fire and Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson have identified their own options for bringing the NUUF back into balance. The deadline for city to designate its preferred remedial measure is Nov. 1.

South County Fire sent a letter in June proposing that to address the imbalance, the contract be amended to add a 24-hour, two-person transport unit to an as-yet-undetermined fire station in the city, and add a 12-hour, two-person peak activity unit (also at a to-be-determined station) that would increase response during daytime hours. These additional units would cost the city $2.25 million annually on top of its current contract cost.

Nelson originally came up with two less-expensive options for the council to consider: the first would have added a 24-hour, two-person unit, which would bring the staffing back to 11 firefighters — what Edmonds firefighter staffing looked like prior to 2017. The other alternative, option two, would have added two 12-hour, two-person peak activity units.

On Tuesday night, Taraday said the mayor had refined his proposal further, and is now suggesting the addition of one 24-hour, two-person unit on Jan. 1, 2022, with the understanding that unit would be converted to two, 12-hour, two-person units by January 2023. The mayor’s proposal would provide South County Fire with time to bargain with its union on staffing issues and also give city and fire officials a chance to gather data on the impacts of the staffing change, Taraday added.

The cost of Nelson’s proposal would be an additional $1.5 million annually.

One of the questions that councilmembers had raised during earlier discussions was whether part of the reason for the service imbalance was due to the fact that many South County Fire EMS units end up at Swedish Edmonds Hospital, and those units — regardless of where they are from — then get dispatched to the closest next call, in Edmonds.

In response, fire officials presented detailed statistics showing the movement of EMS units from various fire stations throughout the South County Fire service area, which indicate that responses to Swedish Edmonds are not driving the imbalance.

In other business Tuesday night, the council received presentations on the city’s proposed 2022-2027 Capital Facilities Plan and Capital Improvement Program in both the public works and utilities department and the parks, recreation and cultural services department. The CFP is updated annually and identifies capital projects for at least the next six years, which support Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan. Capital projects that preserve existing capital facilities are part of the six-year capital improvement program (CIP). You can see the presentation of the public works projects here and the parks projects here.

In addition, the council:

– Reviewed three proposed amendments to Edmonds Rescue Plan Fund ordinance, which was approved by the city council in July to faciliate the city’s use of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The first amendment would raise the income threshold from 40% to 60% of Edmonds median income for those applying for household grants, and the second would increase to $10,000 the amount of grant money businesses could have previously received and still remain eligible for business grants. The third amendment would allow the city to roll over unspent grant funds in the same category to a following year, as well permit a greater number of grants to be awarded if funds within a year allow for it. No action was taken on this item Tuesday night.

– Heard a proposal for a 3% cost-of-living adjustment in 2022 for non-represented city employees, with the possibility of also implementing an additional 1% mid-year 2022 adjustment to account for inflation. This will be considered as part of council budget deliberations and wasn’t voted on Tuesday night.

– Received the Edmonds Municipal Court’s annual report from Judge Whitney Rivera as well as a presentation of the court’s proposed budget, which includes additional costs for court staff reorganization. (Read more about that here.)

– By Teresa Wippel

  1. I’m not anxious for Council activities to return to in-person and I don’t personally have barriers to engagement with virtual meetings, but I agree there should be an actual metric attached to when council will return. This is a great way to remove the emotional reaction to concerns. I think councilmembers should consider coming to the last meeting in November prepared to propose which set of COVID numbers would be deemed safe enough for a return to hybrid option.

    I’m not clear on why it was said that there would be no way to have a mask mandate if we allow in-person participation… what did I miss there?

  2. It’s unbelievable that the CFP/CIP presentation started at 9:30 pm and went till 10:50 PM!!
    That is crazy.
    Is this the transparency and inclusion that Mayor Nelson /CM President Paine feel is acceptable?

    I was tuned in for the entire 4 hour meeting last night. Leaving such an important review of information till that late at night shows bad judgement and an unwillingness to allow for discussion and questions in an open meeting.
    The current schedule for 2022 Budgeting and beyond is so abbreviated- I don’t see how we will be privy to any open discussion or debate.

    CM Olsen asked when questions would be permitted and was told she should email any questions to city staff.
    This essentially blocks the citizens of Edmonds out of the conversations.
    We need to be included in this process so that we understand the dynamics and trade offs being considered and also so we can hear the positions of our CM’s on specific topics.
    Please write to the Council and Mayor if you share this concern. They need to schedule additional time for budgeting questions & discussion sessions during public council meetings !
    Please also phone or Zoom in to the Monday Nov 1st meeting- let your voice be heard.
    There were some great comments last night!!
    Keep them coming!

    1. Please consider limiting your use of the word “crazy.”

      Also, can you clarify how email blocks you from engaging in the process but commenting here is not a barrier?

      1. Chris-
        Perhaps “ maddening” would have been a better word choice.
        Emails between council members and city staff (or between each other) are not easily accessible in real time. Given the short window that we have to gather information and formulate an opinion on the budget based on the current timeline, not having the access to the council members concerns or questions is prohibiting citizens from being fully informed.
        I never said it blocks engagement- I said it blocks us from the discussion and conversation. We can engage but we will not be fully informed because of the off- line nature of discussions being suggested by the City Staff due to timeline constraints.

  3. Blocking the citizens of Edmonds out of the conversation is the procedure du jour of Mayor Nelson /CM President Paine. They got into local office because most people are too busy, too lazy, or in some cases just lacking intelligence. People wanted to be part of some partisan red or blue team without realizing what they were voting for. The only solution to this is for engaged citizens to clean up this mess by voting in some new representatives in the upcoming election that actually care about what their community’s citizens think.

    1. I’m going to hope that most are too busy or meetings held etc while they are at work or commuting home from work. I also suspect that the group on the council all or most have other jobs and only require part time pay. I am sure there are people, many people who could do this job quite well but not everyone who will accept a very part time job with no job security for a lifetime. And finally there are obviously different levels of intelligence. But lazy I don’t think so. Not in this situation anyway. Yes there are lazy people, no doubt just don’t think they are even thinking about politics much. I think that we should have a council who work longer hours and also do some other things, such as they be the planning board together…we vote. They take over the Chamber…together… we vote. I think we have too many cooks in the kitchen. I also think that even though not every college degree held by every council member is that impressive but there is a trend towards having an education after HS. This might stop some very bright and interested and loyal and Bi-partisan candidates. I feel too much red tape and behind the door decisions and this is something we must stop. Its wrong. So Lets fix it citizens of Edmonds.

  4. A FOIA request is needed for the Mayor-Council communications to bring sunlight to their informal processes.

  5. If we had a truly representative city council set up by district, with full-time council persons, the citizen input could be automatic. Each District City Council person could have a weekly district citizen meeting the day prior to all city wide council meetings. Plus their door could be open to any concerned citizen almost any time during any normal work day and the C.P. could even have evening hours one or two nights a week. Citizen input to their C.P. would be relatively instant, simple, and could be done on a regular basis. We wouldn’t need or even want all these citizen boards and commissions that tend to end up in silly, mostly unenforceable codes, dead ends, and special (to the mayor and staff) projects of little benefit or cost savings to the majority. The need to limit citizen comments to 3 minutes and then make fun of them and their situation if they go over (pretty common in past cases) would no longer exist at city council meetings.

    Citizens would also have no excuse to say they aren’t heard or have no access to their local government. We would have total access and input all the time. Maybe we would be able to quit trying to solve everyone else’s problems and just start solving our own for a change? The C.P.s could each poll their own group of citizens about how they want the Marsh funded, for example, vote based on the majority consensus from each district – problem solved by the majority. Same with Streateries, walkable Main Street, Regional vs. city fire department – you name it. If we could just stop the process of inventing problems and then solving them, we would be money and personal satisfaction ahead of the game.

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