Sammamish City Council continues discussion of EFR contract

January 18, 2014

By Administrator

New: Jan. 18, 12:14 p.m.

Although approval on a new agreement for Eastside Fire & Rescue seems assured, two members of the Sammamish City Council raised concerns during a Jan. 14 council meeting.

The city has been negotiating with the other members of EFR for several months. The main issue involves a funding formula, which Sammamish officials say caused the city to subsidize fire service for other members.

The consortium of Sammamish, Issaquah, North Bend and Fire Districts 10 and 38 has been providing fire and emergency services to the region since 1999. The funding model had been based solely on property values. As a result, Sammamish, with its expensive homes and relatively low number of emergency calls, was overpaying for service, city officials said.

Sammamish managed to negotiate a new funding model, which incorporated calls for service into the formula. The result is projected to save Sammamish more than $400,000 per year once it’s fully implemented.

The city also pushed for some changes to the interlocal agreement that underpins the agency. In general, the changes simply clarified the existing situation.

Some of these changes, when taken together, concern Sammamish Councilwoman Nancy Whitten. Whitten, who said she’s felt shut out of the process by the rest of the council, noted three changes in particular. Any one of them might be OK, but taken together, she fears they spell trouble.

The new agreement calls for approving the budget with a vote of five members of the EFR board; previously, votes had been weighted depending on the dollar amounts a partner contributes.

The new agreement, which is for seven years, also removes a clause that would allow for any partner to leave after giving 18 months’ notice.

Whitten said there could be a hypothetical situation where the board votes to spend money on something Sammamish doesn’t want, and the city would have no choice but to contribute.

“We could get stuck with something we didn’t approve,” Whitten said. “If we objected, we’re still paying our share.”

Whitten said she did not necessarily want to scuttle the agreement over the possibility, but she is worried.

Councilwoman Kathleen Huckabay reiterated her concerns that Station 81, near Pine Lake, is considered a “move-up station.” Such stations are used to fill in if there is an emergency in an area typically covered by another station, but firefighters there are busy on another call.

Huckabay fears that in that case, firefighters from Station 81 would not be available in their first duty area, meaning that people in distress would have to wait longer as responders come from further away. In particular, she noted residents along the Lake Sammamish shoreline, which can be difficult to access from other stations in the region.

EFR Deputy Chief Wes Collins pointed out that, in essence, all stations are “move-up stations.” The dispatch system is constantly evaluating which units are on call and which units are available so it can always send the closest available unit.

“The system is in constant motion,” he said.

He noted that Station 81 tends to be frequently called on in that capacity. As a result, the new funding model recognizes that, and Sammamish ends up with a bit of a price discount to reflect how often it happens.

Councilman Tom Odell countered that even though units are constantly in motion, something has to give.

“Eventually, you run out of people and you have to shut something down,” he said.

Odell echoed Huckabay’s concerns about the shoreline area, saying those situations happen a few dozen times per year.

The Sammamish council still has not formally voted on the new agreement. The agreement has been approved by North Bend and Fire District 10. The city of Issaquah was set to vote on Jan. 21. The status of District 38 is unclear, Collins said.

The Sammamish City Council was set to vote Jan. 21, after press deadlines. The vote will likely contain a clause that Sammamish’s approval is predicated on the approval of all other partners.

If the new agreement is not approved by all partners by the end of January, Sammamish will submit notice that it intends to withdraw from the partnership by the end of 2014 and start its own fire department.

That plan is also conditional. If all parties approve the agreement by the end of February, Sammamish could rescind the withdrawal notice.

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