Eastside Fire & Rescue board balks at price tag for proposed headquarters remodel

July 26, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

Within minutes of resolving to work out their differences so that Eastside Fire & Rescue could exist past its current 2014 expiration date, the fire agency’s board of directors grappled with a thorny issue as old as the agency itself.

Fire officials are pushing the agency’s partners to chip in for a remodel and expansion of the headquarters building, located on Newport Way Northwest in Issaquah.

In March, Deputy Chief Wes Collins proposed reconfiguring the inside of the building to add seven offices, a conference room, copy room and an upstairs women’s bathroom, as well as a storage building for EFR equipment that currently sits outside.

That plan’s approximately $500,000 price tag was a nonstarter for representatives from Sammamish, Issaquah and North Bend, some of whom questioned the wisdom of committing their taxpayers’ money to permanent improvements to a building that belongs to King County Fire District 10.

A hazy future for the agency also didn’t help.

Some partners were involved in discussions about an independent taxing authority for fire service and the agency’s interlocal agreement allows partners to withdraw from EFR in 2014.

Sammamish had never been interested in joining a fire authority, and discussions appear dead on arrival for cities like Issaquah, which would see a nearly 40 percent increase in the cost of its fire service, according to projections.

Since March, Collins has been attempting to whittle the project down to the bare necessities — three new offices, a women’s bathroom and additional shop space that would provide at least some additional cover for the thousands of dollars worth of vehicles that currently sit outside in the wind, rain and snow.

At the agency’s July 14 meeting, Collins unsuccessfully attempted to get the partners to simply agree to the framework for how the remodel could happen.

The interlocal agreement that underpins the agency doesn’t dictate how to handle major remodels of jointly used facilities. While two or more partners have pitched in to build or remodel individual stations, a headquarters remodel would mark the first time in the agency’s 12 years of existence that every partner has joined in on the same capital project.

“We’re cutting new teeth and it’s always painful to cut new teeth,” Collins said in a later interview.

The headquarters building was constructed in 1981 as a response station. It was designed to house 10 full time firefighters but has since been converted to an administrative building for an agency that employs 240 people and covers an area of roughly 190 square miles. The administration has been pushing for a remodel since the agency formed in 1999.

Collins said most offices contain two or more employees, who at times must carry on phone conversations over each other; firefighters on desk duty because of injuries must set up in the lunch room; there is not enough room in the building’s shop space to do maintenance on ladder trucks. None of the second floor of the building is handicap accessible and Collins called the lack of a women’s bathroom upstairs “not what you’d expect out of a government building.”

Sammamish Deputy Mayor Tom Odell questioned the need for the project, saying he felt the agency could work around some of the issues — by finding another location to do repair work to the ladder truck, for example.

“I don’t have male and female restrooms in my house — what we do is lock the door,” he said. “Since we’ve gone this long (without a remodel), I think we can go a bit longer.”

Dee Williamson, North Bend’s representative on the board, said it was a project he’d like to support, but it would be a hard sell to the rest of his city’s council, with the recession continuing to put a strain on the city’s budget.

“Our city hall doesn’t have men’s and women’s bathrooms,” Williamson said. “We have city records stuffed in cardboard boxes in cabinets. We’re broke.”

Collins will be bringing the board more detailed cost estimates on the remodel in the fall.

Caleb Heeringa: 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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