Four area fire agencies making up the Northlake Regional Fire Authority Committee voted to disband during a Feb. 4 meeting, striking down the possibility of a single, consolidated fire service provider after two and a half years of negotiations.
The Northshore Fire Department, Woodinville Fire and Rescue and Snohomish Fire District 10 all voted to disband the RFA Committee, while the city of Bothell representatives abstained.
“I know I’m disappointed,” said Bothell City Councilmember and RFA representative Del Spivey. “We went into this looking at a partnership and trying to do the right thing, not only for the citizens and the city of Bothell, but doing the right thing with our neighbors.”
The lynchpin for dissolving the committee was the feeling that a consolidated fire agency between the four members couldn’t provide the current level of service for less money to taxpayers, or provide expanded service at current cost levels, said Bothell Fire Department Chief Bob Van Horne.
“Under those guiding principals, the committee didn’t see any reason to move forward,” he said.
Woodinville Fire and Rescue Commissioner Roger Collins said these were also central considerations for his agency.
“I think the RFA Committee worked hard for a couple years to try to put everything in perspective, and we kind of came to a conclusion that at this point, it’s not a practical alternative to pursue,” said Collins. “That’s not to say it couldn’t be in the future.”
But Spivey said he feels the long term fiscal and service benefits to area residents would have outweighed startup investment costs.
“We’ll never have the opportunity to see those savings and the efficiencies come about,” he said.
The next step for Bothell, Spivey said, is to look at how to better fund what some on the City Council have described as a chronically underfunded fire department.
Despite the committee disbanding, Collins said Woodinville will continue to look at other alternatives, including entering into service contracts with Bothell, or if legislation passes in Olympia in future sessions allowing it, possible annexation or merging with either Northshore Fire Department or Bothell.
Despite the RFA process ending, Van Horne said there will be no effect on current service, and currently existing joint response agreements between the four agencies.
“We all will continue to work together, we all will continue to train together as we can, and respond to emergencies and help each other out,” he said.
Northshore Fire Department Chief Jim Torpin said the decision to disband didn’t surprise him.
“Quite frankly, it’s been almost a year since any progress was made on the RFA,” he said.
Last April, Northshore submitted a letter with a list of questions to the committee concerning next steps and moving the process forward. Torpin said they were never answered.
“I think all of the agencies that were participating all believed that a consolidated fire department would be beneficial,” he said. “The problem is we couldn’t get all on the same page with a shared vision of how to do that.”
Confusion over the RFA process and vision also played into the committee’s decision, and the ability of being able to sell the idea to the public, Torpin said.
“I think this whole process, it left more questions than it answers, and I think that’s part of the biggest problem,” he said. “There’s a lot of information, a lot of conflicting information, so it was really hard to get everybody on board.”
The RFA, if implemented, would have merged all four fire agencies into a single fire authority. This would have meant a single chain of command, shared training practices and a unified response mandate serving residents in Lake Forest Park, Kenmore, Bothell, Woodinville and parts of unincorporated King and Snohomish Counties.
A RFA also acts independently from cities, securing funding through voter-approved bonds and levies, similar to a fire district.
It can also secure up to 60 percent of its funding through a fire service charge, where individual properties are assessed and charged based off what level of response would be required to combat a fire. For example, a warehouse would be charged a higher rate than a single family house.
A RFA has the ability to construct its internal management structure, while a fire district is governed by elected commissioners.
Other fire authorities in King County have merged to create RFAs after the state legislature approved the framework to do so in 2004.
These include the Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn and the Kent Fire Department.
Discussion of creating an RFA was precipitated in part by a drop in property value, and consequent funding through taxes, following the recession. This drop in revenue for fire agencies put the squeeze on departments, particularly Bothell’s, which city officials have repeatedly said needs more service capacity in the southern reaches of the city.