Cities deciding on contract with the county for emergency services

EVERETT — Seven cities in south Snohomish County are considering a contract for the county to take over their emergency management in 2016.

Each city is supposed to make a decision by June 30, so an interim contract could start in July.

The seven cities — Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Mukilteo and Woodway — contract with the Emergency Services Coordination Agency, also known as ESCA.

The board of ESCA, based in Brier, has voted to dissolve. That recommendation was forwarded to all the city councils for review, said Kerin Steele, board chairwoman.

“They’re evaluating what they’re going to do,” she said.

The decision in part was prompted by the March 2014 mudslide near Oso. The slide made clear that ESCA wasn’t prepared to handle a major disaster, Steele said. The agency has three full-time staff and a part-time finance clerk. The 2015 operating budget is about $644,000, funded by the cities and through grants.

Longtime leaders recently have left the agency, and there were “serious internal issues,” according to a memo written by Pete Caw, the deputy police chief in Mountlake Terrace and vice chairman of the ESCA board.

“Vacant positions were not filled as member cities began to question the wisdom of continuing participation,” Caw wrote in the Monday memo.

ESCA was created more than 20 years ago so south county cities could maintain local control of emergency management and coordinate efforts to meet state and federal requirements, Steele said.

Historically, south Snohomish County has been its own political animal, often running on a different axis than anything north of Everett. ESCA also serves three northern King County cities — Woodinville, Lake Forest Park and Kenmore — that are now in the market for an emergency management provider.

In Snohomish County, nearly every city and tribe has some form of emergency management contract with the county, though Everett runs its own.

The county’s Department of Emergency Management proposed a contract to the south county ESCA cities years ago, director John Pennington said.

The goal, he said, is to drop political boundaries and ensure an effective response to regional emergencies, such as earthquakes or flooding.

Cost also is an issue. Mountlake Terrace was paying ESCA about $48,565 a year, and the county is expected to provide “the same or superior level of service” for cheaper, Caw wrote.

For now, ESCA has hired Linda Pillo, the recently retired Bellevue police chief, to lead the agency for the rest of 2015.

In addition to providing emergency management for the cities, Pillo is making sure that ESCA meets state laws and auditor requirements to disband, Steele said. That includes getting rid of assets such as furniture and cars.

The city councils are expected to discuss the proposed switch to a county contract and take votes in the next few weeks.

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