Service stretch: Snoqualmie operations levy would help fire department, city adapt to new era
By SETH TRUSCOTT
Snoqualmie Valley Record Editor
August 3, 2012 · 1:51 PM
The black-and-white photo shows a row of men hefting fire axes and saws, smiling confidently as they open a new station. The 2005 image chronicles the Snoqualmie Fire Department of a different era—a time of fast growth in the city, when fire and police divisions were being built and staffed to handle a big new population.
Fast-forward seven years, and most of the men in the picture still work in Snoqualmie. But their jobs have changed. Their department is busier, but hasn’t grown in nearly a decade. Increasing needs are beginning to tell. A hiring freeze could thaw soon, though, as part of an operations levy that goes before city voters this fall.
A history of growth
The Snoqualmie City Council greenlighted a 24-cent operations levy on Monday, July 23, to maintain service levels for the fire department, police, parks and public works.
The levy is expected to add at least one firefighter and, coupled with organizational changes, add resources to other departments.
Mayor Matt Larson and Administrator Bob Larson say that growing calls for service, coupled with 10 years under a 1 percent property-tax-increase cap as mandated by the state legislature following I-747, mean that the city must go to voters to keep local service to the standard set over the last decade.
Staff growth in fire departments and other city divisions has been slow due to belt-tightening measures meant to keep the city, once too reliant on growth revenues, on a stable financial footing.
Snoqualmie’s massive growth—from 1,600 to 11,000 residents in 10 years—led to burgeoning revenues from permits, sales and real estate excise taxes. The city’s challenge was how to not become addicted to growth money.
“The concern was, what happens when all that growth stops?” Mayor Larson said. “There’s a whole lot of revenue that’s going to disappear.”
New home permits peaked in 2007 with 331, then plummeted to a third a year later. Last year, 128 new home permits were issued.
But even today, in the midst of a recession, construction accounts for 46 percent of the city’s current sales tax revenues, according to Administrator Larson.
The city’s solution: As much as possible, putting one-time revenues toward one-time expenses like the vehicle fleet or capital projects. That meant Snoqualmie had to toe a harder line when it came to growing its staff. The city added about 20 paid positions in the last six years. Mayor Larson describes that growth as “anemic.”
Growth has paid for a lot. Developers footed much of the cost of the new streets, pipes and parks that came in during the Snoqualmie Ridge planned community’s big growth period. Development revenues helped pay for Centennial Field, and for the city’s first parks department. But there are many things that growth can’t pay for, city officials say, including the aging infrastructure the city already has, such as roads, parks and pipes downtown.
According to Mayor Larson, the city’s financial calculations that went into devising mitigation payments from developers on the Ridge posited a roughly 3 percent annual increase in property taxes. By the time I-747 passed in 2001, development in Snoqualmie was underway and it was too late to go back.
“New development has been helping us,” Bob Larson said, “but there’s been that delta: The 1 percent we’re limited to.”
Both the administrator and the mayor make the case that Snoqualmie has fared well through the recession—unlike some neighboring cities or businesses, they haven’t had to lay people off.
“We never hired them in the first place,” Bob Larson said.
However, Mayor Larson believes the city is nearing the limit of its current operational capacity.
“We built to a size that was needed,” he said. “Now we’re there. We’ve grown into it.” He cited police statistics showing that the number of crimes compared to residents is starting to plateau. The population of the city is still increasing, while the ratio of officers to residents declines. Fire calls have also continued to climb.
On the maintenance side, Public Works and acting Parks Director Dan Marcinko said his department is beginning to feel stretched. Service levels, he said, could decline as soon as 2013, as his staff struggles to keep up with mowing and maintenance in a city that is still adding infrastructure such as new parks.
Snoqualmie city officials agree that the service to residents hasn’t suffered yet—Administrator Larson calls this an emerging issue—but they’re concerned that levels may be affected in time.
The fall levy plan had its genesis last January, when the city council reviewed a variety of funding options to address a long-term funding shortfall. In March, the city hired EMC Research and Northwest Public Affairs to conduct a telephone survey of residents, gauging support for a levy. Residents were asked about their priorities, their satisfaction with the city, and the quality and level of basic services.
According to EMC’s results, 56 percent of respondents would support a levy for public safety and maintenance of streets, parks and trails.
Respondents also rated safety issues such as the police department’s “no call too small” policy, fast response times, and maintenance of streets, parks and infrastructure as high priorities. Sixty-three percent of responders said the city is doing a good job, while 66 percent said the city does a good job keeping citizens informed and 67 percent said they trust it to spend tax dollars responsibly.
Regarding the questions, “We were being very frank” about the need for a levy, Bob Larson said.
“We’ve come to the point now where we’ve got to do something,” Mayor Larson said. “We know these are tough times. Some might think it’s crazy, asking for more money. But I’m going to sleep better at night if I can take these problems to the public. (If) they say no, I’m in a position to take those service levels down. I’ve given fair warning.”
Fire department freeze
Lt. Mike Bailey was one of those men pictured in the inaugural photo at the Snoqualmie station.
“We all enjoy working at a small department,” said Bailey, a vice president with Eastside Professional Firefighters’ Local 2878. “We’ve all enjoyed building this up. We just want the tools to be able to do our job.”
The city’s fire company of nine crew members hasn’t grown since 2003. That means that the company can be challenged to handle multiple calls or field the numbers that industry standards say are needed in dangerous situations, like building fires. Bailey said he doesn’t want to be forced to make a choice between his team’s safety and that of a resident in an emergency situation.
Calls for service at Snoqualmie Fire Department have risen since 2000, from just under 600 to more than 1,000 a year.
“The population has tripled since we began,” Fire Chief Bob Rowe said. “We’re starting to see more back-to-back calls.” Such calls stretch local resources and neighboring agencies, who respond when Snoqualmie needs back-up.
“It’s been ‘Hold the line,’ Rowe added. “We’ve tried to maintain the high-level of service and education.”
A lot of help comes from a core of volunteers, but training of crew helpers is a revolving door, as existing volunteers find paying jobs or discover that the task is an especially demanding one.
“We haven’t had a year that we haven’t had someone go out on disability” for a while, Rowe said. Injured firefighters may need months to recover.
“With a small department, there’s only a few people that can go around for the overtime,” the chief said. “It burns them out quick.”
The department has tightened where it can. The fire vehicle replacement fund is still being supported, but Snoqualmie suspended its small tool and equipment replacement fund this year. That means the supply of small, useful tools like air packs will deteriorate over time.
“We’re stretched to our limits,” Rowe said. “We’ve done all our belt tightening.”
According to industry standards, firefighters can’t make an imminent rescue—such as entering a burning building to save a life—without three of them on site. Snoqualmie has a goal of keeping a three-person engine company on duty, 24 hours a day. Since February of this year, they’ve hit that goal 92 percent of the time, Rowe said.
“We want to be there 100 percent,” he added. “We want to be able to pull up to any situation and perform an imminent rescue.”
When North Bend’s Mount Si Court Apartments burned last Thanksgiving, Snoqualmie was among the first on scene, but their two-man crew had to wait for additional help to go inside.
Fortunately, Bailey said, no one had to be rescued.
“We lucked out that time,” he said. “Eventually, our luck’s going to run out.”
Contact Snoqualmie Valley Record Editor Seth Truscott at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-425-888-2311.