Discussions about a regional fire authority continue despite set-backs

Negotiations between four area fire agencies regarding the formation of a Northlake Regional Fire Authority (RFA) continues despite set-backs.

Negotiations between four area fire agencies regarding the formation of a Northlake Regional Fire Authority (RFA) continues despite set-backs.

If implemented, a wide geographical swath spanning two counties currently serviced by the Bothell Fire Department, Woodinville Fire and Rescue, Northshore Fire Department and Snohomish County Fire District 10 could see local agencies merge with the hope of offering residents long-term savings, expanded service and shorter response times from the region’s eight stations.

“Our goal is to get the best possible fire department for the citizens in these areas,” said Bothell City Council member Tom Agnew.

During the Northlake negotiations RFA revenue streams have been a sticking point. The city of Bothell was presented with a $7.5 million dollar buy-in cost to be paid over five years to cover the city’s portion of the start-up costs.

The Bothell City Council agreed to the charge, but wanted to stretch the payment time to 10 years with a condition that half of it was reinvested into improving or creating fire stations in south Bothell.

Northshore Fire commissioners made it clear this would kill negotiations due to commissioners feelings their district offered disproportionate services to the city’s fire department already, and the City Council approved the five-year time frame with conditions that unspecified funds return to Bothell fire departments in the future, allowing negotiations to continue.

Discussion about creating a fire station in south Bothell would continue with the creation of a RFA since it would greatly improve response times Agnew said.

North Bothell lies in Snohomish County with a fire station owned by Snohomish County Fire District 10 that is staffed by Bothell firefighters, who provide service in city limits and nearby unincorporated areas.

During a planning commission meeting on Oct. 1, the issue of Northshore’s voter-approved bonds were central to the discussion. In 2008, Northshore district voters approved $17 million in bonds to build a new station in Kenmore which serves as a command center, a training center and a fire response station. It is the only training center in the area, and all three fire agencies that would be party to the RFA train on-site.

“Because it’s a regional asset, the Northshore commissioners feel the other agencies should participate in paying off the remaining debt,” said Northshore Fire Department Fire Chief Jim Torpin.

Torpin believes the bond should be halfway paid off by 2018 when it is up for refinancing, allowing a future RFA to assume less debt as a whole.

The lack of an established guiding philosophy and vision for a RFA was also of concern to the committee.

A motion proposed by Bothell Deputy Mayor Del Spivey at the meeting, and which was passed by the committee, establishes two subcommittees to examine financial considerations and another to develop governance models for the fire authority. The motion also mandated the committee as a whole to begin establishing guiding principals moving forward.

Woodinville Fire and Rescue Commissioner Roger Collins said despite setbacks negotiations are continuing, and Agnew said the issue could be presented to voters within two years.

“There’s almost universal positive attitudes towards some form of regionalization,” Collins said. “Our focus is on a regional fire authority, but we are also looking at other alternatives to providing a regional model.”

Torpin agreed with Collin’s sentiments, but said there was still a lot to work to do before the Northlake Regional Fire Authority could be put to the ballot.

“There would be some things that we could do that individually we can’t do, so I think the end product [RFA] would be better,” Torpin said. “There’s a lot of decisions that need to be made.”

Representatives from the four fire agencies formed a Regional Fire Authority Planning Committee in September 2013 to begin discussing the possibility of merging.

State legislation passed in 2004 allows various fire agencies to form regional fire authorities.

Fire authorities are distinct from fire districts as it allows a planning committee to determine the type of governance for the RFA, whereas a fire district is governed by elected fire commissioners.

Funding for city fire departments also differs from fire districts and fire authorities. City fire funds are raised through various taxes and paid by the city Agnew said.

Bothell residents currently pay around $1.46 per $1,000 of assessed property value and other taxes to fund the fire department, according to a study by Emergency Services Consulting International authorized by the RFA planning committee.

RFAs are financially autonomous and self-sustaining organizations, like fire districts, which do not rely on individual cities for funding. Their greater size, reduction of redundant positions and streamlining of emergency response and training may provide long-term savings for taxpayers.

Consequently, a RFA may choose to adopt a fire benefits charge funding model where taxes per $1,000 of assessed property value is reduced to no more than one dollar, and buildings area assessed and charged independently based on their size, risk factors and how many resources would be required to fight a fire on the property.

Consequently, a warehouse or manufacturing plant would see much higher rates than a 1,500 square foot family home, and a larger home would have higher rates than a smaller one. Woodinville and Northshore fire districts operate under this model, with Northshore charging a combined effective tax rate of around $1.36 per $1,000 in property value according to the ESCI study.

State law allows up to 60 percent of an RFAs funding to come from the fire benefits charge, which can generate more revenue than a property tax alone.

Forming a RFA funded through property taxes alone requires approval from a simple majority of area voters. Funding based on a fire benefits charge and taxes requires more than 60 percent voter approval, and must be re-approved by voters every six years.

During recessions when property values drop funding for government agencies like fire departments follow suite, fire officials said.

“Financially, municipality fire departments are having a hard time just because their costs are going up and their revenue hasn’t for the most part,” Agnew said.

In 2007, the cities of Auburn, Pacific and Angola formed the first RFA in the state and adopted a fire service charge model.

This resulted in higher short-term rates, but Valley RFA Deputy Chief Mike Gerber believes the long-term cost savings have offset the initial buy-in costs through eliminating redundant positions, freeing up city officials and resources and modernizing infrastructure and equipment.

“Within a couple years, Auburn received better service in their jurisdiction,” he said.

Two new fire stations were created in Auburn and another was remodeled, the city of Pacific was immediately able to staff their stations around the clock when the regional fire authority was implemented, and with greater coverage emergence response times dropped dramatically, Gerber said.

A study session between the Bothell City Council and the RFA planning committee will be held Oct. 13 at Bothell City Hall.