EFR agreement finalized
January 24, 2014
By Ari Cetron
New: Jan. 24, 11:56 a.m.
It’s finally over. After more than two years of negotiations, an agreement is in place to preserve Eastside Fire & Rescue for at least another seven years.
On a 5-2 vote, the Sammamish City Council approved the new agreement Jan. 21, but not before dissenting council members Tom Odell and Kathleen Huckabay admonished the firefighters’ union.
The city has been negotiating with the other members of EFR for several years, but negotiations intensified over the past few 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.
By the time of the Sammamish vote, all of the other partners except Issaquah had approved the agreement; the Issaquah City Council approved it unanimously a few hours after Sammamish did.
The new agreement will save Sammamish about $2.8 million over its seven-year term, said Deputy City Manager Lyman Howard. In exchange for the cost savings, Howard explained the city would be giving up some control it might have had if it were to form its own department.
Councilman Ramiro Valderrama said he was happy with the negotiations. He noted the other partners had jumped to work on Sammamish’s schedule, and that in comments he’d heard, residents overwhelmingly supported staying with EFR.
He characterized the new agreement as a way to continue to safeguard the public while still saving the city a significant amount of money.
While most of the council was happy to continue with EFR and save money, Huckabay and Odell were not.
Huckabay said there were parts of the agreement which worried her. Many, she said, were simple things, such as terms that were not well defined, which could have been easily fixed and would lead to problems in the future.
Odell said he was annoyed at the process, which took the partnership to the brink of dissolution before it was saved, and he also thought Sammamish could have gotten a better deal.
“I do believe we’re going to be back here at some point in the future,” he said. “While I’d like to vote for this agreement, I cannot.”
Both Huckabay and Odell praised the work of the firefighters in the community, but then took the firefighter’s union to task.
The union launched an aggressive social media campaign, and handed out flyers reading “Save Our Fire Department.”
Huckabay noted that Sammamish has a multi-ethnic community, and many who saw the information feared that Sammamish was considering disbanding the fire department instead of starting a new one.
“You have really scared a lot of people who just don’t understand what is happening,” she said.
She then challenged the group to find ways to rebuild trust with the community.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said she also had some reservations about the agreement, but voted to support it. She asked that the council discuss among itself ways to address her issues, and then take those issues to the rest of the partners.
Later in the meeting, she brought up the issue again, but the rest of the council had little appetite to continue discussions of fire service – something that has dominated meetings for months.
City Manager Ben Yazici noted the amount of time spent on fire service has slowed down other topics. The council decided to let the agreement settle for at least a few months before trying to take it up again.
“Let’s give it a chance, let the dust settle down a little bit,” Yazici said. “We have other business to run here besides fire.”