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