The positions of the new Bothell City Council related to a Regional Fire Authority (RFA) were measured at a special meeting held Jan. 27.
A list of four questions posed to each member party to RFA discussions were discussed by the council. The fire agencies party to the negotiations are the Bothell City Council representing the city fire department, Northshore Fire Department, Snohomish County Fire District 10 and Woodinville Fire and Rescue.
The questions included whether each agency remains interested in creating an RFA, do they have an interest only in an RFA, would they be interested in pursuing a service contract where individual departments contract with others for service and is there interest in pursuing annexation or a merger which would bring other agencies fire jurisdiction under a consolidated entity.
Woodinville and District 10 both voiced support for the continuing RFA negotiations, while Northshore officials said they were interested as well, but had raised concerns in an April 2015 letter, which they want to see addressed. However, Northshore believes a consolidated fire authority would provide better service as well.
All three said they were willing to look into the other three options.
The Bothell City Council is the only City Council party to the negotiations, since the other agencies are fire districts, independent from single-city control, ran either by the county or collections of municipalities.
At the meeting, interest in continuing with the RFA was approved 4-3, with Bothell Deputy Mayor Duerr and Councilmembers Tris Samberg and Joshua Freed opposed.
“My biggest thing with the RFA is we spent a year-and-a-half in discussion with the RFA committee, with the groups getting together and talking, and for ten years I heard up here on council that we needed a south station,” Freed said. “And after we offered $7.5 million, I was told that we didn’t need a south station, that the level of service in the area was adequate.”
During RFA committee negotiations, the city of Bothell was asked to commit to an up-front cost of $7.5 million, which they eventually approved by the council.
City fire officials have also raised concerns about improving fire service in south Bothell, possibly with the creation of a new fire station, largely due to choke points caused by having only two bridges connecting the northern reaches of the city to the south across the Sammamish River.
When the city originally agreed to the $7.5 million, they did so with a condition that half of it would be brought back into the city to improve or construct a new station in south Bothell.
This was rejected by the RFA committee, and the city again agreed to providing the funds, but with the requisite that discussion of creating a fire station would continue.
Councilmember Tom Agnew said this was to match reserve funding, which the other agencies had, and due to underfunding, Bothell’s fire department did not. Concerns over aging Bothell facilities also contributed to the figure, which could be used to replace older equipment if an RFA was formed.
“We got here by not funding the fire department, not funding it adequately,” he said. “Is it just us? No, I think this has probably been going on for decades, but we need to take a look at it now.”
However, Samberg was concerned that creation of an RFA would financially burden Bothell residents.
Samberg said in order to fully fund the Bothell fire department, a levy tax of nine cents would be needed, costing the average homeowner with a property value of $404,000 around $36 annually. If the RFA was implemented, it would increase this to around 75 cents per dollar of assessed value, for an additional cost of $306 annually.
“At this point, I can’t support moving forward with an RFA because it will be more expensive to our taxpayers,” she said.
Although Mayor Andy Rheaume agreed that the RFA would be expensive for citizens, he said he would like to keep looking into it.
“Are we looking at the platinum package for the RFA that we’ve priced out? Or are we looking at the gold package, or the silver package,” he said. “We’ve only seen one package and I don’t know which one it is, but I can assure you that from where I’m sitting, the Regional Fire Authority sounds extremely expensive as a tax payer.”
However, he said that the RFA makes sense from a long-term perspective.
The council approved 4-3 to look at pursuing a service contract, where the city would either contract with another fire agency to provide service, or contract with other agencies to be the service provider.
Currently, Bothell’s fire department provides service for northern Bothell which lies in Snohomish County and falls under District 10’s jurisdiction.
Spivey and Freed said they would be willing to look at a service contract as long as Bothell was the service provider. Samberg said she would be open to contracting with another agency as a step-in and adjustment process to a future RFA consolidation, but said pursuing an RFA right now was too much of a commitment for the city.
“The nice thing about a contract is that it’s reversible. If you don’t like how your contract is working out for you then the contract ends,” she said. “I’m afraid that with an RFA, or annexing into a fire district, that is essentially an irreversible step.”
Spivey was opposed to this, saying contracting for service reduces the amount of power Bothell citizens and the council would have in their fire service.
“My number one choice is to come together as a Regional Fire Authority, and the reason being is our citizens have great voice, as well as our council has significant voice in a Regional Fire Authority, if that’s the way a model is set up,” he said.
In a previous Reporter article, it was found that RFAs are governed by a model decided by the parties, as opposed to a fire district where officials are elected, like the Northshore Fire Department.
Bothell Fire Chief Bob Van Horne said the next step for the RFA will be for the committee to draft a governance and fees plan, which will likely take up to a 18 months.
Spivey and Agnew both sit on the RFA committee.
Edit note: This report has been updated to more accurately reflect the views of Northshore Fire Department.