EFR partners lukewarm on funding change

February 14, 2013

By Ari Cetron

New: Feb. 14, 1:16 p.m.

Eastside Fire & Rescue partners had the equivalent of couple’s counseling at a Feb. 7 meeting, complete with accusations of duplicity and calls to salvage fraying relationships.

With less than two years left on the agency’s current interlocal agreement, and months of prep work necessary if a partner were to go somewhere else for fire service, partners began laying out their positions on the thorny issue of funding the agency. EFR serves the cities of Sammamish, Issaquah, North Bend and King County fire districts 10 and 38.

Sammamish representatives have in the past threatened to withdraw from the partnership unless the funding model was changed to more accurately reflect the amount of calls each partner produces. The agency currently determines each partner’s bills based on the assessed value of property covered by specific stations, something Sammamish representatives feel unfairly impacts them due to the expensive homes in the city.

“Nobody wants to see this organization fall apart, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers to be sure that they’re getting what they pay for,” Sammamish Mayor Tom Odell said. “And there’s a lot of concern that they’re not.”

Sammamish representatives have been advocating a new funding model based partly on the amount of calls each partner generates.

While they were originally seeking a 50/50 split between assessed value and calls for service, Sammamish representatives have since said they would accept a 75/25 split with the new formula phased in over several years to limit the impact to partners that would pay more.

According to department staff, Sammamish would lower their annual fire expenses by 2.8 percent a year, while Issaquah would see a 4.8 percent rise and North Bend would pay 9.7 percent more under a 75/25 split.

Despite the higher costs, North Bend representatives said they supported a hybrid assessed value/calls funding model if that’s what it took to keep EFR together past 2014.

North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell said the ability to share administrative costs between multiple partners makes for significant cost savings compared to each partner having to run their own fire department.

“I’ve had my own fire service before, and I never want to do that again,” Lindell said in reference to her last job for the city of Mercer Island. “I never want to have to negotiate another labor deal.”

But a switch of the funding model did not sit well with representatives from Issaquah and Districts 10 and 38. Issaquah City Administrator Bob Harrison noted that the city is already paying $400,000 more this year for fire service and expects to pay $300,000 more next year thanks to commercial growth in the area. Harrison said it’s hard to fathom making Issaquah taxpayers pay more for the same service.

District 10 Commissioner Mike Mitchell pointed out that all partners’ revenue streams – and those of the rural districts in particular – are based on property taxes collected according to assessed value. And despite complaints about the inequity of using assessed value, Mitchell pointed out that a fire station costs the same to staff and run regardless of how many calls it is responding to.

District 38 representative Ron Pedee suggested that most of Samm-amish’s issues with service – namely that its fire units spend too much time responding to calls outside of its area – could be addressed through smaller tweaks to dispatching patterns or bilateral cost-sharing agreements between two partners, rather than wholesale changes to the way the agency is funded.

North Bend Councilman Alan Gothelf said he was disappointed to see Issaquah and the rural fire districts refusing to compromise on the funding model, despite Sammamish giving ground on its original demand for a 50/50 split.

“I think we need to be sure we’re not standing on our positions because of some principle rather than doing what’s right for the organization,” Gothelf said.

Near the end of the meeting, Pedee suggested that Sammamish had been using the threat of its exit to pressure other partners into a funding model that didn’t make sense for them.

“It seems like there are two questions here,” Pedee said. “One is, ‘How do we make this partnership work?’ The other is, ‘How do we keep Sammamish from leaving?’ The implication of the first is to improve the partnership, while the implication of the other is extortion.”

With some partners openly speculating about EFR’s dissolution, Chief Lee Soptich passionately urged partners not to throw away the baby with the bathwater.

Soptich said that by quibbling over $150,000 to $300,000 a year, partners could lose out on even more valuable economies of scale that come with sharing administrative costs.

“I am begging you to take a look at what you’re talking about and ask yourself if you’re doing what’s right for the residents of this area,” Soptich said.

EFR staff will be preparing more statistics outlining the costs to specific partners if Sammamish were to withdraw from the agency ahead of another committee meeting at 2 p.m. March 18 at EFR Headquarters, 175 Newport Way NW in Issaquah.

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