Safety, jobs at issue in Bothell annexation

BOTHELL — The paramedics at Fire Station 22 must be feeling rather popular these days.

For the second time in six months, their jobs seem to be the most hotly debated issue facing Bothell-area voters.

Bothell again is trying to annex a chunk of unincorporated south Snohomish County. The proposed annexation covers about 22,000 people and 5.6 square miles. Voters rejected the first annexation attempt in November.

Ballots for the special election must be mailed or returned by April 17.

Much of the controversy revolves around staffing at Fire Station 22, which sits in the northwest corner of the annexation area. The station in 2011 had 751 fire and aid calls in its service area — roughly two a day.

Snohomish County Fire District 1 officials maintain that Bothell would provide subpar fire and emergency medical service around the station. Bothell officials say the claims are groundless but the city has upgraded its service plans for the area anyway.

State law encourages cities to grow. Annexations include a host of issues, such as land-use, police, public works and street maintenance.

In the proposed Bothell annexation, no one’s debated much of anything but paramedics.

In public, the controversy about Fire Station 22 is about service and safety. Behind the scenes, it also is about firefighters’ jobs.

Fire District 1’s board of commissioners staunchly opposes the Bothell annexation.

In south county, annexations usually mean less land — and less tax money — for Fire District 1. In recent years, the district has also challenged annexation proposals in Mukilteo and Lynnwood, though district officials are quick to point out annexations they supported in decades past.

The district operates Fire Station 22, or “Hilltop Station,” at 20510 Damson Road, across the street from Hilltop Elementary School.

Fire District 1 now staffs Fire Station 22 around-the-clock with three firefighters, including at least one paramedic.

Nearly all firefighters can provide basic medical aid. It’s a matter of pride for Fire District 1 that it sends paramedics with more advanced medical training to more calls than its neighbors.

Bothell started drawing up its original annexation proposal a few years ago, city manager Bob Stowe said. It didn’t include specific provisions regarding Fire Station 22, because city officials then thought Fire District 1 planned to close the station.

That triggered a storm of arguments about what the city might do with the fire station and what could happen as a result.

Bothell now has promised to keep the station open and at the same level of staffing for at least five years, Stowe said. City officials say they listened to voters’ concerns in November, and believe the new plan is responsive.

Fire District 1 officials say they aren’t convinced that Bothell can keep people safe.

It gets complicated, because Bothell straddles the county line. In Snohomish County, fire protection agencies or city fire departments generally provide emergency medical service. In King County, most neighborhoods are protected by Medic 1, which provides paramedics through contracts.

Bothell’s current emergency medical services contract covers the parts of the city that lie in Snohomish County. The city itself employs only firefighters, not paramedics.

If the city wanted to provide paramedic staffing at Fire Station 22, it would have to hire paramedics or renegotiate its contract.

Bothell plans to hire, but the exact number of additional people it needs is one of the big sticking points among firefighters.

Fire Station 22 operates at a loss for Fire District 1, meaning it costs more to run than the area it serves brings in from property taxes, commissioner Richard Schrock said.

Fire District 1 employs 14 firefighters, including paramedics, to staff the station.

The fire district wanted assurance that if the annexation passed and it had to lay off crews, Bothell would hire those people.

The district and its union officials claim Bothell really plans to hire less than half of the people who work there.

Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb said the city is obligated by state law to provide jobs to firefighters who are displaced by the annexation.

“We’ll accommodate as many of them as we can, and we look forward to doing that,” he said.

City officials also are working on a plan with Snohomish County Fire District 7 in Clearview, Lamb said. He said he’s confident that if the annexation passes, they’ll make agreements with all affected fire agencies.

Fire District 7 firefighters are worried about service and jobs, too, said Michael McConnell, vice president of the Local 2781.

The proposed annexation includes a significant portion of the area now served by Fire Station 73 or Bear Creek Station along 45th Avenue SE. The annexation stops short of the station itself.

The annexation has been heavily discussed among union leaders for all the fire agencies that could be affected, including Bothell firefighters. Some of the unions have been meeting regularly, but Fire District 1’s Local 1828 stopped going.

The union felt that the talks weren’t productive, said Scott Hamilton, union president and a paramedic and firefighter with Fire District 1.

Bothell has not guaranteed in writing that it would cover all of the firefighter jobs that may be lost in Snohomish and King counties, he said.

That played “a huge role” in his union’s decision to leave the talks, he said.

Fire Station 22 is “an essential part of emergency services in that part of the county,” Hamilton said.

“We feel very compelled to protect our service, and when it gets threatened, this is typically how we respond,” he said.

The meetings among the unions covered a lot of issues, but the biggest concern from the other unions were regarding job security, said Hugh Moag, a Bothell firefighter speaking for the Local 2099. That was the case when Fire District 1’s union was still participating, he said.

So with all the fuss about the firefighters, what about the cops? Is anyone worried about police service?

The areas proposed for annexation in unincorporated Snohomish County are served by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

If the annexation passes, Bothell plans to hire about 20 additional police officers, city spokeswoman Joy Johnston said.

It’s still too early to determine how the annexation would affect the sheriff’s office, bureau chief Kevin Prentiss said last week. The sheriff’s office is paying attention, but can’t say how the annexation may affect staffing.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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