As with other services traditionally offered by individual cities and supported by city taxpayers — such as libraries, parks and even law enforcement — the era of city-run fire departments may be drawing to a close as municipalities confront having to meet increasing demands for services with thinly stretched tax revenues.
Only three cities now maintain separate departments for fire protection and emergency medical services: Everett, Mukilteo and Arlington. Officials for Everett and Mukilteo have more than kicked around the idea of merging with other cities and districts, and Arlington voters — in a Feb. 9 special election for which mail-in ballots have been sent out — will determine whether to combine its fire department with North County Fire and EMS.
Arlington voters can view the proposed annexation with North County Fire and EMS as a move that will preserve a long record of timely and professional response in emergencies while using economies of scale and a larger tax base to keep costs affordable for all of the region’s residents.
It’s a partnership that has been working since 2008 when Fire Districts 14 and 18 merged, forming one of the first regional fire authorities in the county. It was joined by the Stanwood Fire Department after that city’s voters approved a merger in 2018 by a vote of more than 83 percent.
North County Fire, led by Chief John Cermak since 2014, includes 28 full-time staff and additional part-time and volunteer staff at five stations, serving 110 square miles in north Snohomish County and a population of more than 25,000 residents. The regional authority answered 4,369 calls in 2019.
Arlington Fire Department, by comparison, is a near mirror image of North County Fire, serving a population of 20,600 with 30 full-time staff, answering 5,033 calls in 2019.
The agencies already have been working cooperatively, noted Arlington Fire Chief Dave Kraski. Previous interlocal agreements have led to sharing of a medical services officer, a fire marshal, a community paramedic working to address frequent repeat 911 callers, joint training programs and part-time emergency personnel.
These partnerships, Kraski said, have provided efficiencies to both agencies and have strengthened the ties among respective staffs and the community.
A full merger would provide those benefits in total.
And time is running out for Arlington to find a solution to a looming funding crunch. With fire and emergency calls expected to grow by 40 percent by 2025, the city’s is facing growing red ink for its ending fund balance by 2025 without moving forward on annexation. Figures from City Administrator Paul Ellis show projected deficits in the fund balance of $380,000 by 2025, increasing to $3.7 million by 2029. Because cities must balance budgets, those deficits would have to be avoided through spending cuts, increased taxes or a mix of both.
To meet current needs, in addition to using property tax revenues for city fire and EMS services — which total about 65 percent of the budget — the city depends upon an EMS levy and a recently added ambulance fee, which was adopted as a stop-gap measure while the city considered funding solutions.
If the merger is approved, Arlington taxpayers will see a shift on their tax bills. In exchange for dedicated levies for fire and EMS services paid to North County Regional Fire Authority, Arlington residents would see a reduction in the city’s general property tax levy and the repeal of the EMS levy and the ambulance levy.
Most home owners — about 54 percent, Ellis said, would see a reduction in taxes or would pay a similar amount; 28 percent would pay up to an additional $60 a year, while 18 percent would see an annual increase in taxes of more than $60. For example, the owner of a home assessed at $350,000 would pay about $900 annually if the annexation is approved, but $917 without annexation. A property tax calculator and a link to find your assessed property value is available at tinyurl.com/NCRFAtaxcalc.
If approved, city taxpayers would see the shift to North County Regional Fire Authority starting Jan. 1, 2022.
Beyond the tax bill, most Arlington residents should notice few changes.
Among the questions most-asked of him, Kraski said, is the fate of the department’s firefighters and other department employees. There will be no losses of jobs, he said, and Kraski will step into a new role as an assistant chief for North County Fire. Each of the city’s three fire stations will remain open and staffed. And there will be no change in local firefighters’ presence in the community, including the popular Santa Run Food Drive each December.
Public oversight of fire and EMS services will remain, Ellis said. Arlington residents will vote and be able to run for North County Fire’s board of commissioners, though in the interim city council members will be appointed to the board to represent city residents. City council members would be eligible to serve on the regional board but couldn’t run for the city council and the board in the same year.
A yes vote by Arlington voters to approve the merger of the Arlington Fire Department with North County Fire and EMS will use North Snohomish County’s collective strength to ensure greater financial stability while maintaining responsive and skilled fire and emergency services.