Issaquah taxpayers could contribute more if Sammamish leaves EFR

October 20, 2009

By Staff

If Sammamish leaves Eastside Fire & Rescue — a decision under discussion by city officials — Issaquah taxpayers could pay more to support the regional fire agency.

Sammamish City Manager Ben Yazici said he had discussions with Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Griffin about Sammamish leaving EFR. Yazici said he and Griffin talked about the logistics of how fire coverage would be redistributed if Sammamish broke from the agency.

But Yazici said the discussion was exploratory in nature, and not indicative of a definitive plan to leave EFR.

“It’s a piece of information that I need to have in order to do a logical analysis,” Yazici said.

Issaquah Councilman David Kappler, a member of the EFR board of directors, said Sammamish officials considered the move because of the way members pay for EFR.

“Sammamish definitely doesn’t want to be in a regional fire deal, because of the assessed valuations,” Kappler said.

Besides Issaquah and Sammamish, EFR provides fire and emergency services to North Bend and two fire districts in unincorporated King County.

EFR Board Chairman Ron Pedee said the departure of Sammamish would likely increase the financial burden on the remaining partners.

Kappler agreed, and said owners of businesses and houses with higher assessed values would feel the greatest effects of the move.

“For most homeowners, it probably won’t have much impact,” he said.

The terms of the agreement governing EFR could make it tough for Sammamish officials to withdraw before Dec. 31, 2014. But the agreement may contain provisions to allow the city to leave sooner.

Yazici commissioned the FCS Group, a Redmond consultant, to update a 2006 financial study of fire costs associated with EFR. The city will pay about $5,000 for the update, he said.

Sammamish city sources, including the city manager, mayor and another two councilmen, also said the city does not plan to close Fire Station 81.

“We’ve never discussed closing a station in Sammamish,” Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend said.

The cost of fire protection has represented the highest cost increase to Sammamish in recent years — something Deputy Mayor Jack Barry and Councilman Lee Fellinge, both EFR board members, have sought to curb.

Sammamish has contributed about $36.9 million to EFR since the city joined the agency in 2001. The contribution went up by $355,746 between 2007 and 2008, and by $336,387 between 2008 and 2009. The cost of fire service has increased by about 6 percent each year in the past three years.

EFR staff members have said they are working to ensure that any increase this year will be lower.

At the same time, the revenue stream for Sammamish has dried up, except for property tax revenues — the bulk of the city’s funding — that cannot grow at the same rate as EFR costs.

Sammamish Finance Department officials projected a point in the next six years when city spending would outstrip funding, unless something changes. A spending change could be something completely unrelated to fire protection — such as halting major construction projects — that the city already has plans to do.

Despite the daunting future costs of fire service, Barry said he does not support a break from EFR.

Barry also referenced the 2006 financial study — which showed that the city saved money by partnering with the fire agency.

Fellinge said he considered a departure from EFR a real option, but not the only one. He said he was looking for a way to maintain the city’s existing level of fire protection service without allowing cost increases. He said he is not envisioning closing fire stations or cutting back on firefighters.

The existing funding model for the agency — approved by Sammamish and the other partners — is based on an insurance philosophy approach.

The total property value of a partner’s area correlates with its level of service and, therefore, its cost of service.

If properties are worth more, they have more fire stations and should receive faster responses from firefighters. In practical terms, it also translates into a model where denser, more urban areas receive better and more expensive fire protection than less dense, more rural ones.

Barry has said he suspects a different funding model would be less expensive for Sammamish, because the city’s newer developments would have fewer fires and less serious fires, thus driving down the cost of service.

Yazici said FCS might look at how Sammamish could partner with other agencies for fire protection, in addition to having a city-owned fire agency.

Kappler, however, said he imagines Sammamish officials would contract with EFR to provide fire protection even if the city left the agency. Because the agency surrounds Sammamish to the east and the south, Sammamish officials could find contracting with EFR to be a less expensive option, Kappler said.

No matter what the consultant finds, the Sammamish City Council would make the ultimate decision regarding what to do about fire protection, Yazici said.

“This is not personal,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s not about EFR. It’s about trying to provide the best service at the lowest cost.”

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