Council OKs plan to address fire service imbalance, agrees to maintain current property tax

During Monday night’s meeting, City Attorney Jeff Taraday — bottom row, left — discusses the proposed adjustment to fire services staffing.

(Correcting to  indicate meeting was on Monday rather than Tuesday.)

Edmonds City Council Monday night approved a letter drafted by Mayor Mike Nelson outlining a contract amendment with South County Fire to address the city’s long-term service imbalance— a move that will cost the taxpayers $1.5 million annually.

The vote was 6-1, with Councilmember Kristiana Johnson opposed.

In the letter, the mayor proposes to address the service imbalance by funding a 24-hour, two-person transport unit, starting Jan. 1, 2022, at an as-yet-unidentified fire station. This unit would be considered a temporary measure until South County Fire can negotiate with its union the logistics of converting it to two, two-person peak hour units (PAUs), which is seen as a long-term solution. (Peak hours are defined as 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) The deadline would be flexible as to when this conversion would occur.

While the mayor will send the council-approved letter immediately, the actual contract amendment language will come back to the council later for approval.

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.)

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..

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 during an Oct. 5 discussion on the issue.

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.

In a related matter Monday night, the council approved by a 5-2 vote (Councilmembers Kristiana Johnson and Vivian Olson opposed) a 1% increase in the city’s annual emergency medical services (EMS) levy. Some councilmembers said their reasoning for approving the increase was to help fund the South County Fire contract amendment. The tax hike will raise an additional $41,640 annually, which can only be used to fund EMS care or services.

And the council unanimously agreed to maintain the city’s current property tax. Under state law cities are allowed to raise property taxes 1% annually but the council’s vote Monday night was for a 0% increase. However, the council agreed to “bank” a 1% increase — a practice that gives local governments the authority to levy that additional 1% at a later date.

In other business, the council heard a brief presentation from Administrative Services Director Dave Turley on the proposed 2022 budget, then received public comments on it during a public hearing.

Turley noted budget highlights, including:

– The city’s receipt of $11 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that will be invested in Edmonds businesses, individuals and green infrastructure.

– Improvements to what the city is now calling the Highway 99 neighborhood — the “Uptown” community  — beginning with construction of Phase 2 of the Highway 99 Revitalization Project.

– Community policing, which includes responding to state mandates, and an effort to address public safety issues.

– Investments in solar energy, electric vehicle and electric vehicle charging stations.

– Continuation of the city’s human services program, started in 2021.

– Investments in long-delayed building maintenance.

Among the public comments, Edmonds resident Jim Oganowski said it wasn’t clear to him how staff budget priorities were being moved forward for council approval. “It seems more like a wish list than a prioritized list of expenditures, which are needed for a city,” he said. “It would be helpful to highlight a budget process flow chart, so citizens could follow along with you in this budget process.”

Carl Zapora of Edmonds said he wished the evening’s budget presentation would have given a broader overview including total revenues projected for 2022, as well as total expenses, and net income and net assets or reserves. In addition, Zapora said he’d like to see hear more about Edmonds’ overall financial health, including the city’s bond ratings.

Responding to a question from Councilmember Diane Buckshnis, Turley said he has been posting answers to councilmembers’ budget questions on the city’s website. You can view those here (go to the 2022 Budgeting Tab and scroll to Q&A).

The council will hold a special meeting this Thursday, Nov. 4 to give councilmembers a chance to further discuss the budget and ask questions of staff.

The final public hearing Tuesday night was on the city’s Capital Facilities Plan (CFP) and Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The CFP is updated annually and identifies capital projects for at least the next six years that support the city’s Comprehensive Plan. CFP projects are capital improvement projects that expand existing facilities/infrastructure or provide new capital facilities to accommodate the city’s projected population growth in accordance with the Growth Management Act.

The CIP, meanwhile, includes capital projects that preserve existing capital facilities.

Last week, during its Oct. 26 meeting, the council received presentations on capital projects in both the public works and utilities department and the parks, recreation and cultural services department. The next evening — Oct. 27 — the Edmonds Planning Board also reviewed the CFP/CIP and made several recommendations, including:

— That staff do their best to explain the funding aspect of the CFP to the public and explain why items are located where they are. In particular, the planning board pointed to the Edmonds Marsh Restoration Project, which has been a source of public concern from those believe it should be included as a parks department project rather than listed as a stormwater project.

– That the city establish a formal process to establish values and a vision of Edmonds that would be as part of, and lead, the Comprehensive Planning process.

– That the city seek opportunities to shift money or look for funding to move forward with projects that advance equity citywide.

This last planning board recommendation was amplified during public hearing testimony offered by Lake Ballinger resident Natalie Seitz, who said that city resources “should be spent equitably and in ways to uplift all communities.”

Seitz then went on to discuss daycare programs in the Highway 99 corridor, noting that they are located in commercial buildings that have been repurposed for child care and their access to outdoor playground options are limited — and many of them invest in their own play equipment at their cost. This is unlike downtown Edmonds child care facilities that have access to public amenities, she noted.

“This is why I talk so much about public service vs. private burdens,” Seitz said. Many downtown resources — including the Boys and Girls Club, parks, Civic Field and Frances Anderson Center — “are public services in the Bowl identified in the Capital Facilities Plan and programming. And yet they are private responsibilities in the SR 99 corridor.

“These decisions are real and impactful to families that are not seeing the benefit of their tax dollars,” Seitz added.

In other business Monday night, the council

– Approved amendments to Edmonds Rescue Plan Fund Ordinance (read more in our previous story).

– Approved a November 2021 budget amendment ordinance that included reorganizing the Edmonds Municipal Court and increasing the hours of a human resources analyst position.

– Heard a proclamation for Family Court Awareness Month

An item regarding special event permits amendments to the city code was postponed to a future meeting.

— By Teresa Wippel


  1. I thought one of the most incredible public comments made last night was made by Alicia Crank calling in as a constituent. Ms. Crank stated concern about behavior that she has witnessed and that others in the community have witnessed. She stated she would hope and ask that sitting councilmembers who are texting her and others to speak out and act against other councilmembers and electeds should stop that behavior.

    I encourage the sitting Councilmembers who have been doing this to make open and transparent disclosure to the public.

  2. It is obvious, but not surprising due to the complexity, that citizens as well as some councilmembers do not understand city property taxes. At last night’s council meeting it was frequently mentioned that they opposed the possibility of a 1% increase because the taxes are already being affected by the big increase in property values. The reality is that the total amount of property taxes that the city collects is limited to 1%, unless some of the banked capacity that was referenced is used, no matter how much property values increase. The tax rate is adjusted to limit the total taxes collected to the percentage approved by city council.

    The percentage increase that the city collects is the average of the taxes collected from all properties. That means that when a property assessment is above the average the amount of tax increase is above the average, and when a property assessment is below the average the amount of tax increase is below the average.

    All of my comments here pertain only to property taxes levied by the city – which are a small part of total property taxes. The vast majority of property taxes are the voter-approved school district taxes.

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