Proposed fire authority receives cool reception from cities
March 15, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah, Sammamish leaders also raise concerns about pools at joint meeting
The potential regional fire authority for Eastside communities received a lukewarm reception from Issaquah and Sammamish leaders March 10, as city councils from both cities discussed planning for emergency services and other issues at a joint meeting.
Officials from Issaquah and rural fire districts formed a planning group in late 2009 to consider a regional fire authority in the Eastside Fire & Rescue service area. The authority could tax residents to fund emergency services, unlike EFR. Contributions from member cities and fire districts fund EFR.
“It’s really hard to see a scenario where you can provide fire service to the citizens of Issaquah with an RFA,” Issaquah Councilman Mark Mullet said as leaders from both cities met at Tibbetts Creek Manor.
Participation in the planning process does not commit Issaquah or the fire districts to joining a regional fire authority.
The discussion about the regional fire authority also prompted questions about EFR in the years ahead. The interlocal agreement underpinning the agency is due to expire in 2014, though the pact is designed to remain in place until a member announces plans to withdraw.
“I think the sooner that we can say, ‘Hey, we’re happy with EFR. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep that entity together,’ we can start assuming that it’s going to stay together, because 2014 is no longer very far down the road,” Mullet said. “I think the sooner the two cities get behind that organization and say, ‘Hey, we’re happy with the service,’ the better we can start to plan.”
Officials said rural fire districts 10 and 38 led the effort to envision a regional fire authority. District 10 includes Klahanie, May Valley, Preston, Tiger Mountain and Carnation. District 38 includes unincorporated King County near North Bend and Snoqualmie.
Key financial data outlining how a regional fire authority could be funded is due to the planning group in July.
“For us, July is probably the time when it’s going to be crystal clear whether there’s a possibility or not,” Issaquah Councilman Fred Butler said.
‘Why fix it if it isn’t broke?’
In the meantime, Issaquah leaders reaffirmed a commitment to continuing the EFR arrangement.
“I’m not interested in going alone, having seen the city has experience with that,” Issaquah Council President John Traeger said. “It’s not as good a deal as what EFR represents — by a long shot.”
The sometimes-strained relationship between the agency and Sammamish has prompted officials to consider alternatives, though Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend offered support for EFR at the joint meeting.
“My feeling is, why fix it if it isn’t broke?” he said.
Regardless, as the 2014 deadline to decide on EFR service approaches, representatives in Issaquah and Sammamish said the cities must start planning for the future as soon as possible.
“Issaquah has taken a wait-and-see approach,” Sammamish Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said. “If you take your wait-and-see approach too long for Sammamish, the city will need some plan at some point in time where we do have a choice. If you want to work with us, at some point in time you need to make a decision.”
Despite the concerns about a regional fire authority, leaders left the possibility open for future scenarios.
“There may be an RFA out there, too. I’m not afraid to say that,” Sammamish Deputy Mayor Tom Odell said. “Is it the RFA that’s being looked at now? No, it might be a different RFA.”
Leaders dip toes into pool decision
The dozen council members from both cities, plus Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger, also discussed aquatic centers — a concern in Issaquah due to the aging Julius Boehm Pool and a priority in Sammamish, as the city embarks on a pool feasibility study.
(Issaquah Councilman Tola Marts and Sammamish Councilman John Curley did not attend the meeting.)
Sammamish could someday approach Issaquah about operating a community aquatic center as partners, though the study must be completed before Sammamish leaders can offer firm information.
In the meantime, Issaquah is considering steps to maintain Boehm Pool.
King County built the pool in 1972 under the Forward Thrust program — a series of bonds passed in 1968 and 1970 to fund parks, recreation facilities, roads and other infrastructure. The downtown Issaquah facility had a 25-year life expectancy. The county transferred the pool to city ownership in 1994.
Issaquah claimed about 3,000 residents on the pool’s opening day, compared to more than 30,000 nowadays.
Officials said modern municipal pools include amenities for gatherings, such as birthday parties, and features for all age groups.
“It doesn’t have to be like the old Forward Thrust pools,” Gerend said.
Boehm Pool serves the entire Issaquah School District, and district residents pay the same usage fees as city residents.
In the city budget adopted in December, the Issaquah council directed the Parks & Recreation Department to outline the steps needed to form a special taxing district to fund improvements to the pool.
“We’re feeling the strain of paying for the operation and maintenance of Boehm Pool,” Butler said at the joint meeting.
Economics also pose a major concern as Sammamish considers a community aquatic center.
“Pools can be tax drains or moneymakers,” Odell said.
Sammamish Councilwoman Michele Petitti, a development director for the local YMCA, said a pool must include numerous features in order to operate in the black.
“Part of the problem is, when you have just aquatics, you have to have a full package to make it work,” she said. “A standalone pool does not work anymore.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.