Sammamish to consider options for fire service
April 10, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: April 10, 2:09 p.m.
Negotiations to reduce the amount Sammamish pays for fire service have been less than fruitful. So at is April 2 meeting, the City Council formally authorized City Manager Ben Yazici to study options outside of remaining a member of Eastside Fire & Rescue.
“We are giving (Yazici) the OK to go ahead and examine the alternatives,” said Mayor Tom Odell.
The authorization, however, was largely ceremonial, since the council had already given Yazici the OK to consider other fire service options. Up to this point, Yazici said, his efforts had been directed toward finding ways to change the way Sammamish pays for fire service and maintain its ties with EFR. The city has been part of EFR, a consortium of Sammamish, Issaquah, North Bend and Fire Districts 10 and 38, since 1999.
Sammamish officials have long complained that EFR’s funding, which bases payments on the value of property rather than the number of service calls, is unfair. Officials note the city has high property values and generates relatively few calls for service.
“Taxpayers of Sammamish are subsidizing the service in other areas,” Odell, who represents Sammamish on the EFR board, said. “It’s a matter of equity.”
Sammamish officials had been trying to convince other members of EFR to switch to a funding model based 75 percent on property value and 25 percent on the number of service calls.
However, those negotiations fell apart March 18 when other EFR members rejected the proposal.
In June 2012, the council had a review committee review other options for fire service. Other than staying with EFR, the committee suggested the city might drop out of EFR, but then contract with the agency for fire service; try and contract with the city of Redmond or form its own fire department.
The council did not explicitly state what Yazici should investigate, but those options are likely on the table.
Yazici said repeatedly that he thinks the city’s first choice should be to find some way to stay with EFR, and that it still might be possible.
“The partners are working to see if there’s other things they can do to keep Sammamish in the consortium,” he said.
The council did not give Yazici a specific deadline to come back with his findings. However, he doesn’t have much time. If the city intends to leave EFR, it must give formal notice by the end of this year. It would then drop out of EFR at the end of 2014.
Help the neighbors
The Providence Point neighborhood is often trotted out as an example of Sammamish subsidizing other jurisdictions with Eastside Fire & Rescue.
The retirement community generates a lot of calls for medical assistance. It is inside the Issaquah City Limits, but Sammamish surrounds it on three sides. The closest fire station is Station 83, near Sunny Hills Elementary School – and in Sammamish.
Sammamish officials often point to the neighborhood as an example of a Sammamish-based unit serving other communities.
If Sammamish were to leave Eastside Fire & Rescue, however, the station would still be the closest, which could test the limits of the mutual aid pacts that have been the hallmark of fire service in the area since the 1990’s.
Mutual aid, explained EFR Deputy Chief Wes Collins, is basically a handshake agreement between the various fire chiefs in the area. The understanding is that if one area needs extra help, others will pitch in. Then when one of the others needs help, the first area will help in turn.
“Mutual aid works because everyone agrees to it,” Collins said. “So far, nobody has said ‘I’m not going to respond to you because you don’t have enough resources to respond back to me.’”
Generally, no one charges for their services, since they understand that some day, they will need help.
City Manager Ben Yazici joked that such an arrangement has its limits.
Otherwise, he said, one place could simply eliminate its own fire department and rely on free help from the neighbors.
Another option would be a so-called automatic aid agreement. This involves a formal contract between two agencies that lays out exactly how much one will pay the other for a given service.
If Sammamish were to leave EFR, officials would need to determine how much help Sammamish would be willing to give Issaquah, and if it would charge for it.