Sammamish City Council starts deliberations on the future of fire service
October 20, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: Oct. 20, 1:14 p.m.
Sammamish is pressing forward with discussions about leaving Eastside Fire & Rescue and forming its own fire department.
At its Oct. 14 meeting, the City Council heard a consultant’s report about the costs of starting a fire department, a report from City Manager Ben Yazici giving the historical context for the process, and the recommendations of an advisory board studying the issue.
Sammamish has been considering leaving the regional fire agency – comprised of the cities of Sammamish, Issaquah, North Bend, along with Fire Districts 10 and 38 – largely due to funding. The current funding model has Sammamish effectively subsidizing fire service in Issaquah and North Bend, said Mayor Tom Odell.
“We, frankly, think that we are being taken to the cleaners,” he said.
But before any of that happened, nearly three dozen people spoke about the proposal. Most were paid and volunteer firefighters, but a handful were private citizens, all of whom supported the firefighters.
In what seemed a coordinated effort by many of the speakers, they took turns asking questions about the consultant’s study. Most were skeptical that a fire department could be run as cheaply as the study claims.
Some speakers got into specifics, such as who would perform the specialized maintenance fire trucks require, since the consultant’s study recommends not hiring a mechanic. Others, including an area fire chief, questioned the total dollar amounts, saying the city would not be able to run a fire station for as little as the consultant suggests.
Still others noted that the current trend is for consolidation into regional departments, whereas this plan would be the opposite, and that the city has no experience with union negotiations.
City employees are not currently unionized. While the sheriff’s deputies who make up the Sammamish Police Department have a union, King County handles its negotiations. A firefighter’s union, likely to form soon after the department, would lead the city into new territory.
Consultants Peter Moy and Bob Merritt tried to address some of the issues as they gave their presentation. The numbers weren’t much different from the ones they presented in July. Sammamish could run its own fire department for a net cost of about $5.9 million per year, they said.
The city’s contribution to EFR in 2014 will be about $6.3 million.
In addition to the annual costs, the city would incur start-up costs of about $2 million next year, the study stated.
Moy and Merritt explained there would be essentially two options for fire service for Sammamish: a bare-bones, first responder model; or a conventional model, which is similar to what EFR provides.
The first responder model is less expensive, but relies on outside help for major events. The study said it can work in an area where 90 percent of service calls can be handled by a single unit.
About 70 percent of calls in Sammamish involve emergency medical response. Only 1 percent of calls in Sammamish involve a “working fire” requiring a major response. The remainder of calls relate to vehicle accidents, small fires and fire alarm responses, the study said.
Merritt said that some areas with similar profiles operate with small and almost all volunteer fire departments.
In addition, if Sammamish firefighters did not need to respond to routine calls from other EFR members, they could reduce their workload by more than 40 percent. This could leave them more time to conduct other fire department-related and educational activities, the study said.
At least some of the cost savings in the study seemed to rely on running an operation with a different staffing configuration. The city, for example, would not employ an assistant fire marshal or mechanic. Instead of the EFR model, which calls for three battalion chiefs and 10 lieutenants, the consultant model calls for 13 “supervisory personnel.”
The study estimates an annual salary of $74,000 for the rank-and-file firefighters. If the pay rates were lower, the department would risk hiring entry-level firefighters who would quickly move to better-paying agencies after gaining experience.
“Your salary ranges are going to have to be competitive,” Moy said.
The study also noted EFR officials believe the city will be giving up other services – including access to specialized teams, fire prevention and regional influence – if it decides to leave.
City Council members tried to zero in on exactly what might be lost.
“What would we be giving up in-house, where would we get it, and how much would it cost?” Councilwoman Nancy Whitten asked.
Merritt explained that was a potential discussion for the council. He noted the city would need to make policy decisions about its priorities and what it was willing to fund.
“The council would need to define what service they want, and what it would cost,” Merritt said.
The City Council plans to hold another public meeting related to fire services Oct. 29.
City Manager Ben Yazici plans to make his recommendation to the City Council at its Nov. 5 meeting, and the council is planning to make its decision Nov. 12.
Panel recommends leaving
The city’s Technical Advisory Board recommended that Sammamish Leave Eastside Fire & Rescue. The board consists of Kathleen Huckabay, Lee Fellinge and Ron Haworth. All three have served on the Sammamish City Council and EFR’s board of directors. Haworth is also a retired firefighter and fire chief.
The advisory board has been studying the issue since February 2013. It came to the conclusion that Sammamish is a now mature enough city – where it hadn’t really been ready to take on fire services in the past – and it has the resources to operate its own department successfully.
“The city of Sammamish can be better served by a city-based fire service,” Huckabay, speaking for the board, told the City Council Oct. 14.
How did we get here?
For years, even as far back at the early 2000s, Sammamish has complained that the funding model for Eastside Fire & Rescue was inequitable. The agency consists of the cities of Sammamish, North Bend and Issaquah, along with Fire Districts 10 and 38.
The agency, governed by elected representatives from each of those partners, develops an annual budget and each of the partner jurisdictions is billed. The bill is based solely on property values. Sammamish, with its high-value homes, ends up effectively subsidizing other partners, particularly Issaquah and North Bend.
A few years ago, Sammamish began to ask EFR’s other partners to change the funding formula. At first, Sammamish wanted the formula to be based half on property values and half on call volumes. This would have resulted in substantial savings for Sammamish and the fire districts, and steep increases for Issaquah and North Bend.
That idea was met with resistance. Sammamish dialed back its request to 75 percent property values and 25 percent call volumes. That, too, was shot down.
In February 2012, Sammamish started the process of hiring consultants to study its options for fire service. It also appointed a panel of former City Council and EFR board members to study the city’s options. At the same time, it continued to press EFR to change its funding model.
As time progressed, the consultants and advisory board evaluated the options of staying with EFR, leaving EFR and trying to contract with them, forming the city’s own fire department or trying to contract with a different city.
Some options turned out not to be viable, leaving Sammamish with the options of staying with EFR or forming its own department. The time to make that choice is running out.
The agreement which forms the basis of EFR expires at the end of 2014, and the city must give at least 12 months notice if it plans to leave. Also, if Sammamish chooses to leave EFR, it would need to factor in the time needed to make adjustments to next year’s budget and account for the new department’s estimated $2 million in start-up costs.
A power point of the consultant’s presentation is available at http://www.ci.sammamish.wa.us/files/document/11978.pdf.
A power point of City Manager Ben Yazici’s Oct. 14 presentation is available at http://www.ci.sammamish.wa.us/files/document/11976.pdf.
Email the City Council at email@example.com.
Who would staff the stations?
City Council members repeatedly said they are happy with the work of the firefighters; their issue is with the funding model and the governance. According to the consultant’s study, the city would have a direct financial interest in hiring the firefighters who are currently working for Eastside Fire & Rescue.
If Sammamish were to leave, EFR would likely lay off a number of firefighters equal to those currently staffing Sammamish stations. Sammamish would then be on the hook to pay for unemployment benefits and vacation time accrued by those firefighters. However, if Sammamish were to hire the same firefighters, It would not need to pay unemployment costs.
While the money issue is certainly easier to understand, the city has other problems with the Eastside Fire & Rescue model, and sometimes that feeling is reciprocated by EFR officials.
The model of different partners who each have their own interests has caused some friction between Sammamish and the other partners at times, and some issues have taken years to resolve. The drawn-out process often leads city leaders to become frustrated with the way the partnership is run.
“You can’t put a dollar figure on the governance issue,” said Councilwoman Nancy Whitten.
EFR Chief Lee Soptich said the other partners sometimes have their own frustrations with Sammamish’s attitude toward the way EFR operates.
“Four members believe it is a partnership,” Soptich said. “Sammamish believes it is a contract.”