Fire District 1 negotiates to take over service in Edmonds

EDMONDS — Taxpayers in the city soon could get a discounted price on fire service from a fire department looking for customers.

The only hitch? The city might have to part with its 105-year-old fire department.

Snohomish County Fire District 1 is facing possible annexations from Mukilteo and Lynnwood that could strip the district of almost 40,000 people. That’s about 30 percent of the district’s population.

The district serves about 130,000 people in unincorporated south Snohomish County, and also provides service to Mountlake Terrace and Brier.

It has entered into negotiations with Edmonds that center on a simple premise: the fire district would purchase all of Edmonds’ fire stations and equipment, and provide fire and emergency services to Edmonds more cheaply than the city’s fire department currently does.

The city could get a $10 million pile of cash later this year.

And Edmonds would pay about $1 million less per year for fire service than it currently pays. Homeowners in Edmonds wouldn’t see a change in their tax bills, but the city could spend the money on other services.

Having ramped up with new fire stations and equipment, the district has excess capacity, commissioner Bob Meador said.

Now it needs new customers, he said.

If they can only pay discount prices, that’s OK.

It is a business decision, Meador said.

“You could say, ‘I could sell this product, or I could charge this higher price, but not move the product,’” said Meador, who said it makes sense for the residents of Fire District 1 not to pay 100 percent of its costs. “Either you take the revenue, or you don’t take the revenue.”

No deal has been struck, but negotiations have been ongoing for months.

Union and fire administration officials from both the city and the district continue to meet.

Commissioner Jim Kenny said the district’s size gives it financial advantages that make fire service cheaper. For one thing, administration costs are spread more thinly, he said.

Kenny’s initial proposal asked Edmonds to pay about $6.9 million a year for fire and emergency medical services — an effective tax rate of 83 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The contract also would cover Woodway, which the Edmonds Fire Department services.

Taxpayers in Fire District 1 pay $2 per $1,000 of assessed value, plus an additional 14 cents per thousand to pay a capital bond.

Apples-to-apples comparisons with tax rates aren’t effective, said Ed Widdis, chief of Fire District 1.

Because of lower home values, rural areas have to charge higher rates to collect equal taxes, he said. The district’s aggressive capital projects budget also complicates the issue, he said.

Still, some fire commissioners are unhappy with the current negotiations.

Moving toward a regionalized fire service is wise, but this proposal isn’t the way to do it, commissioner Larry Hadland said.

District taxpayers should not subsidize Edmonds, he said.

“Clearly, what we are going to charge them is below our cost,” Hadland said. “I think it is not the right way to treat our taxpayers.”

Purchasing Edmonds’ fire stations would be a mistake, he said.

By the time the district pays off its purchase debt, it will have spent about $20 million buying Edmonds’ fire department, he said. Making a permanent customer out of Edmonds isn’t necessary, Hadland said.

“It doesn’t make business sense. It makes political sense,” he said.

In the face of impending annexations, the fire district attempted to expand in places other than just Edmonds.

The cities of Mukilteo and Lynnwood rejected similar proposals, opting instead to explore a partnership of their own.

Edmonds is still listening, Mayor Gary Haakenson said.

“We owe it to our taxpayers to listen to everybody’s offer,” he said. “It if turns out that we can provide the same level of service, or better service, and it is going to cost us less money in the long run, that’s something we have to consider.”

Saving $1 million a year is significant for a city facing fiscal pressures, said Edmonds Councilman Ron Wambolt, who has sat in on multiple meetings between city and district officials.

By selling its equipment, Edmonds would be taking a step that it couldn’t really undo, Wambolt acknowledged.

“I look at this as though it is forever,” said Wambolt, who said he’s leaning towards making the deal. “It would be too big of a mess to ever try to restart (an Edmonds Fire Department).”

From the district’s perspective, bringing Edmonds into the fold makes a lot of sense, Kenny said.

“We won’t have to worry about annexations from Edmonds,” Kenny said. “If you look across the southern border of Fire District 1, suddenly we (would be) anchored in for the long-term.”

Chris Fyall: 425-339-3447, cfyall@heraldnet.com.

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