Council committees recommend regional fire authority as ‘preferred alternative’ for Edmonds fire service

Council committee members Neil Tibbott and Chris Eck (LR top row) and Council President Vivian Olson (at left, bottom row) listen to Bruce Moeller of Fitch and Associates describe the costs of fire and emergency medical services options.

The Edmonds City Council took a first step Tuesday toward deciding how the city will receive fire and emergency services when one of the council’s three committees recommended a draft resolution that Edmonds join the South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue Regional Authority (RFA).

The recommendation came from Neil Tibbott, chair of the public safety-planning-human services-personnel (PSPHSP) committee, and committee member Chris Eck. It followed a presentation by two officials from Fitch and Associates, a consulting firm the council hired last year to analyze fire and emergency services (EMS) options for Edmonds.

Joining the RFA is one of three options the council is considering, and Tibbott stressed on Tuesday that the committee’s recommendation starts “a transparent public process among council members regarding this resolution. This is our opportunity for us to discuss openly what we found in the [Fitch] report and any questions that we have as well any observations that are important to the decisions before us.”

The committee’s draft resolution on the preferred alternative will go to the full city council for deliberations May 21. If approved by the council, it would authorize Mayor Mike Rosen to “begin going down the track of getting either the information or identifying what that process is “Tibbott said. “We are not obligating the city to any particular option at this point and we’re not discontinuing any further public dialogue or input.”

Tibbott also noted that the council has been studying the fire services issue for 10 months. “We’re not making a quick, knee-jerk selection,” he said.

Edmonds had its own fire service until 2009, when financial pressures related to operating the fire department convinced the Edmonds City Council to contract with South County Fire (then known as Fire District 1). The fire district in 2017 reorganized into what is now the South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue Regional Authority. As a fire authority, the agency can be funded directly through property taxes rather than receive payment from the individual jurisdictions that contract for fire and EMS services. In essence, this means that property owners would fund the RFA directly, rather than pay taxes to the city to fund emergency and fire services. To move from an individual contract to being part of the RFA, voters in each jurisdiction need to approve this change. So far, the cities of Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Brier and Mountlake Terrace have voted to join the RFA.

In December 2023, South County Fire sent a two-year termination notice to the City of Edmonds, noting that Edmonds is still “paying less for service under the current contract than the rest of the FRG.” Edmonds currently pays South County Fire $12 million annually, and fire and emergency medical services costs are a concern due to recent city budget challenges.

The council has been considering three options proposed by Fitch: joining the RFA, contracting with the Shoreline Fire Department for services or restarting Edmonds’ own fire department.

Source: Fitch Report

Bruce Moeller of Fitch and Associates noted that forming an Edmonds Fire Department would result in annual costs of $19.2 million, with the bulk of that going to personnel. In his report, Fitch said that the city would need to hire 51 firefighters and five administrators. Nationally, “recruitment and retention has continued to be a problem in many areas,” Moeller said. Fitch recommended that the city offer wages and benefits that are comparable to what South County Fire provides, otherwise the city will experience “a revolving door” of staff turnover.

The cost for personnel alone is just over $13 million annually, plus $6.7 million required for capital equipment such as fire trucks and ambulances. Also factoring into the cost is debt service for any required fire station relocation or repairs (Edmonds retained ownership of the fire stations), construction and other capital equipment — for a total of $2.2 million annually. The city would receive an estimated $1 million annually in ambulance billing revenue.

There would also be city administrative costs associated with human resources, finance and payroll, Moeller said.

Another challenge for the city in starting its own department would be the delay in acquiring fire apparatus. Moeller said that “24 to 36 months is not unusual, and that’s from the time you place the order.”

The city’s cost to annex into the FRG, according to the Fitch report, would be $17.8 million. Contracting with the Shoreline Fire Department would be nearly $25 million.

Tibbott then asked Moeller to provide his opinion on which of the three options would provide Edmonds with “the best continuity of service as well as ongoing long-term service.”

“You have a very well-managed and excellent department that provides service right now,” Moeller said. “My recommendation…would be to annex to the RFA.”

Tibbott then asked Eck what her recommendation would be, and she explained her determining factors: cost to the city, given the current budget situation; cost to the community in terms of a future levy to cover fire costs (which Fitch estimated would be almost identical when comparing a city fire department levy vs. the RFA’s levy — known as a benefit charge) and the high-quality services the city is already receiving from the fire authority. Eck also said she doesn’t believe the city should get into the fire service business. “It’s not our set of expertise, it’s not the day-in, day-out responsibilities that I think our community members are looking at us to handle,” she explained. Finally, she said she worried about how long it would take to hire personnel and purchase fire equipment.

“I also concur in moving forward with the RFA,” Tibbott said, noting that the fire authority has “achieved a certain economy of scale that allows a certain amount of efficiency,” as well as providing high-quality service. Tibbott also said it was important that the RFA is already involved in long-range planning to ensure that future fire and EMS service can accommodate the region’s population growth. In addition, “it’s not lost on me that they have a funding mechanism for the revenues needed to run the fire service,” he said.

The PSPHSP committee also heard a proposal from Councilmember Jenna Nand to consider a ban on “the deliberate breeding and the sale of companion animals for profit.” After a lengthy discussion, council members agreed to bring the matter to the full council for a future briefing.

In other committee discussions Tuesday night, the parks and public works committee ran out of time to discuss the addition of bike lanes on Main Street as part of the Main Street overlay project. That committee did receive an update on the costs for undergrounding utilities as part of the Highway 99 Revitalization Project but staff explained that they didn’t want to move that discussion on to the full council until they determined whether state funding would cover the cost.

The parks and public works committee also recommended sending to a future consent agenda a proposal to extend the city’s job ordering contract (JOC) program with Gordian for a year — until May 2025. A report on the program was also scheduled for Tuesday but the committee ran out of time, so that will happen at a future committee meeting. The objectives of the JOC program, according to the council agenda, are to “rapidly engage contractors in the performance of small to medium sized public works projects; to reduce construction, design, and planning costs; and to develop relationships and contracts with contractors to more quickly and efficiently respond to emergency situations.”

The finance committee also wasn’t able to get through its full agenda, due to a long discussion of a draft financial policy framework for the city. The policy covers topics ranging from how often and in what form the council should receive financial reports, to the city’s fund balance policy, to the reserve levels for major operating funds. The commitee agreed there was still work to be done on the policy, and that it would be discussed at a future committee meeting before presenting it to the entire council.

—By Teresa Wippel

 
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