Fire District 1’s plans bumping up against growing cities

EVERETT — Ed Widdis, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 1, walked to a large wall map in fire station headquarters.

He pointed to the seven fire stations his district has strategically built across much of unincorporated south Snohomish County. In 2002, south county voters approved $19.3 million in bonds to build two of those stations, remodel another and buy land for more.

Widdis talked about response times, levels of service and the importance of thinking ahead to protect the people who live in the area his fire district serves — now and in the future.

One big problem, though.

Learn more about how annexation and growth plans for cities affect the areas covered by Fire District 1 in our animated graphic.

Fire District 1 and its stations lie within the state-mandated growth areas for south county cities. Within a few years, much of the area that Fire District 1 now serves likely will be absorbed by Lynnwood, Mukilteo and Everett. The cities all operate their own fire departments and have shown scant interest in making them part of Fire District 1.

Lynnwood is farthest along and has headed to court to defend its plan to annex a large swath of south county. If the plan wins approval, Lynnwood’s population would become second only to Everett’s.

The annexation also would essentially cut Fire District 1 in half.

Fire District 1, still the county’s largest, has no plan to go extinct. Instead, it has aggressively marketed itself as an option for providing high-quality fire service, including places it has not historically served.

In January, Edmonds disbanded its fire department and joined Mountlake Terrace and Brier as cities that pay millions of dollars every year to contract with Fire District 1.

Since Edmonds also served the community of Woodway, that town now contracts with Fire District 1.

The district is moving ahead with other growth proposals. Last month, talks opened with Clearview-based Fire District 7 about a possible merger.

If that happens, it would create a super-sized fire district serving 280,000 people across south county, stretching east as far as Maltby. By comparison, the Everett Fire Department serves 103,500 people.

Meantime, the fire district’s leaders have taken legal action to challenge annexation proposals by Mukilteo, Lynnwood and Bothell. Its leaders in recent years have even approached the city of Everett, suggesting that Fire District 1 has a stake in providing fire service within the county’s largest city.

When it comes to keeping people safe in their homes, some leaders inside area cities are missing the bigger picture, said Jim Kenny, chairman of Fire District 1’s five-member board of commissioners.

“The common denominator I’m seeing between the cities is they are looking at what their future boundaries or potential future boundaries are, and that’s all they’re looking at. And that’s very understandable,” Kenny said. “But they don’t necessarily look at the big picture of the region. To me, that’s the difference between individual cities looking at their needs and the fire district looking at region-wide needs.”

Is bigger better?

Fire District 1 wants to protect most of south county, but it doesn’t have a plan for getting there.

The district’s 2006 strategic plan listed “regionalization” as the second of 11 goals, but is silent on specifics.

“We don’t have a current strategic plan,” said Kenny, who also is campaigning to become the county’s next prosecuting attorney. “We’re actually working on that here in the spring, to update it to look at some of those over-the-horizon issues.”

Fire District 1 leaders are certain about one thing: Bigger is better.

Bigger, they argue, is more efficient and better for the people who receive their service.

Taxpayers living in the district pay $2.17 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $542.50 a year for a $250,000 home. That supports the district’s annual budget, which this year is $36.7 million, more than double what was spent in 1997. There now are nearly 200 firefighters on the payroll.

Fire District 1 has been around since the 1940s. In 1999, it merged with the smaller Fire District 11, which had provided service near Silver Lake. Until 2005, when it contracted with Mountlake Terrace, Fire District 1 operated exclusively outside city limits.

The district now serves about 220,000 people living in an area that stretches north from the King-Snohomish County line, skirts Lynnwood, and includes the unincorporated neighborhoods sandwiched between south Everett and Mill Creek.

Talk of transforming Fire District 1 into the regional fire authority in south county has not borne fruit, though it has been going on for years. The last serious discussions were in 2008, when leaders from area cities and fire departments converged in Edmonds.

The regional option appealed to Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson.

“With one regional fire department you can have one fire department managing the locations of fire stations,” he said.

Officials in Lynnwood and Mukilteo made clear they were more focused on pending annexations and sorting out what would happen with fire service in those areas.

Haakenson opted to split from the pack and open negotiations with Fire District 1, asking the district to take over fire service in Edmonds as a budget-saving move.

Edmonds City Councilman D.J. Wilson, who voted for the contract with Fire District 1, said that even so, he’s not entirely convinced that south county needs regional fire service. There is a tendency for people to believe that consolidating public services makes sense and saves money, but the opposite can also be true, he said.

“You can’t just think that regionalization is a silver bullet,” he said.

Representation also is an issue. People living in Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Brier and Woodway now help pay Fire District 1’s bills under the contracts, but they don’t live in the district. That means they don’t get to vote for Fire District 1 commissioners, run for open seats on the five-member board, or weigh in on any decisions under consideration.

In Clearview, where Fire District 7 is in merger talks, some of the elected commissioners are cautious.

While the firefighters union likes the idea of merging— Fire District 1 pays well — “There are way, way too many unanswered questions,” Fire District 7 Commissioner Gregg Knapp said.

Fire District 1 leaders say that when emergencies happen, city limits are just lines on a map. Those distinctions aren’t so important when it comes to knocking down flames or driving ill or injured people to the hospital.

“We work as one region, really,” Widdis said. “Operationally, we’re just one region, whether it’s Lynnwood or Edmonds, it really doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t always play that way politically.

Last year, for example, Fire District 1 challenged Mukilteo’s proposal to annex areas south and east of city limits, despite a state boundary board’s approval. The controversy had additional heat after union firefighters for Fire District 1 urged one of the district’s own board members to step down.

They believed his employment as an assistant fire chief in Mukilteo created a conflict of interest.

Mukilteo’s annexation move was in response to requests from people living just outside city limits, City Council President Randy Lord said. Those neighbors weren’t happy with the sheriff’s office response times and county regulations on zoning and development, Lord said. They believed Mukilteo would provide better service in those areas, Lord said.

Their dissatisfaction did not extend to Fire District 1, he said. “Never did they ask ‘Can you make my fire service better?’” he said.

The fire district also has tilted with the city of Everett over annexations. It resisted Everett’s annexation of land near Murphy’s Corner. While Kenny at the time wrote Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson saying he hoped the city would be open to future talks, the fire commissioner’s follow-up letter in 2008 was met with silence.

“We didn’t respond or entertain the discussions,” Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon said.

Everett’s fire department provides high-quality fire and medic service to its residents and taxpayers, and there is little interest in changing how it goes about its business, Reardon said.

Lynnwood resists

Lynnwood’s growth plans don’t include Fire District 1 either.

Under growth management plans, Lynnwood is set to become the county’s second most-populous city. It already is moving to annex neighborhoods that 27,000 people now call home, north and east of city limits.

That territory now lies at the heart of Fire District 1. While Lynnwood leaders have been talking about the transition with Fire District 1 leaders, the city has made it clear it plans to go it alone.

The most recent talks broke down a year ago over disagreements about how best to transfer fire stations and equipment, said Tod Gates, an assistant fire chief in Lynnwood.

At one point, Fire District 1 offered to simply step aside and have Lynnwood manage the district’s operations.

That idea proved too costly for the city, however, because it couldn’t afford to match the district’s wages and benefits for firefighters, Gates said. He said negotiators didn’t get into dollar details. “By the time we got to that level of detail, the economy tanked,” Gates said.

The district pulled out of the discussions.

District 1 commissioners Kenny and Bob Meador told city leaders that if Lynnwood wasn’t interested in managing fire service in the district, Fire District 1 wanted to be paid by Lynnwood to do the work under contract.

Lynnwood rejected that proposal. It runs its own fire department.

“The city is not opposed to looking at a regional solution but for us to cede control of our fire service … then there has to be a substantial benefit to the city,” Gates said.

Scott Hamilton, the union leader for Fire District 1 who was part of the negotiating team, said he is open to talking with the city’s firefighters.

“It is still important enough to us that I would sit down with Lynnwood in a New York minute,” he said. “We still believe, in spite of all the political differences, that we are better to be one than to be segmented.”

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429, ohalpert@heraldnet.com.

Definitions

Fire protection district: A fire department with taxing authority and governed by an elected board of commissioners.

Regional fire authority: A special government that shares fire protection among jurisdictions while still preserving oversight by cities and fire districts

Merger: When fire districts combine their staffs and boards of commissioners. District taxpayers must vote to approve a merger.

Consolidation: When fire districts or a city and a fire district combine their staffs and leadership. No vote is required to approve a consolidation.

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