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ESF&R to take Sammamish under wing

ISSAQUAH _ By the end of November, the city of Sammamish

will be added to the fire department consortium known as Eastside Fire

& Rescue.

Eastside Fire & Rescue (ESF&R) Chief Lee Soptich is pleased with

the addition, which will be official when all representatives of the

partnership sign an agreement that spans five

years and acknowledges Sammamish as a member. This should take place

within a few weeks.

King County District 10, the ESF&R partner that provides

service for the Redmond/Sammamish Plateau area, voted on Oct. 23 to accept

the new city. District 38, which protects areas of unincorporated King

County in the Snoqualmie Valley, will be the last to vote. District 38

commissioners received the complete contract Monday night and are expected to

cast their votes sometime within the next week or so, according to

Commissioner Ron Pedee.

Soptich explained that the addition of Sammamish should keep fire

service at its current level. Besides districts 10 and 38, the fire

departments in North Bend, Issaquah and Carnation are under the ESF&R umbrella.

The reason for the addition now is because Sammamish became a

city only one year ago, and by law, officials were allowed time to

decide whether to contract out for police and fire services, or form their own

departments. They chose their own police department, but chose the

contract option for the city fire department. The city had already received the

majority of its service from ESF&R, with the remainder provided by Fire District

34 in Redmond and Fire District 27 in Fall City.

Soptich said Sammamish generates about $5 million of the

fire organization's taxpayer revenues, and if the city chose not to sign the

agreement, the funding would be lost, which could compromise existing service

for the rest of the partners.

"Sammamish has been a part of District 10 since District 10

was formed 50 years ago. This is not as far as my estimation goes, (an)

expansion of what we're doing but [we're] just maintaining the service area that

we already have been," Soptich explained. "It makes no sense for

Sammamish not to be a part of it, they've always been a part of it and if they would

have formed their own fire department, it could very likely [have] taken

away the availability of resources."

The fire consortium began two years ago when officials from

Fire District 10 and the city of Issaquah decided to join forces, later

bringing in the city of North Bend and Fire District 38.

The city of Snoqualmie abstained from signing the contract and

instead started its own fire department.

But the fire district marriage was not always a bed of roses —

controversy has surrounded ESF&R since its creation.

During its formative stages, some district board members and

residents were reluctant to give decisions and funding over to one controlling

force, but the agreement was signed nonetheless.

Then in April of this year, Issaquah officials pondered splitting

from ESF&R. During that time, several Issaquah station volunteers quit

and ESF&R's current chief, James Rankin, abruptly retired.

In addition, Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger sent a letter to ESF&R

headquarters that announced a plan to leave the consortium and form the

city's own fire department. There was talk of Issaquah possibly providing

service for Sammamish, independently of ESF&R.

But after a series of meetings and a weekend retreat, ESF&R

board members agreed to iron out any problems between the members. At

that time, Soptich said the family of fire departments and districts had

come too far to fall apart.

And it didn't — ultimately, Issaquah officials decided against

the split, and in a move that ESF&R officials were pleased with, last

week voted unanimously to allow Sammamish into the pack.

"In my view [the issues with Issaquah have] settled down and I

look at their vote with Sammamish coming in as a partner as positive and

that they are committed to ESF&R," Soptich said.

"Most of what I thought [ESF&R] would be, it has become," he

added. "Six months ago we were looking at the potential for ESF&R to

collapse and now we're looking at extending well out into the future. That's been

a very pleasant turnaround."

What the new addition means for the areas the fire entity covers is

command of more resources to pull from in an emergency, he explained.

"We don't look at them as independent fire departments, we look

at our service area as one big resource pool," the chief said.

Soptich added that with 104 career firefighters, more than 100

volunteers and 25 staff members, ESF&R was able to form its own fire

investigation team, hazardous material response team and a technical rescue group.

"It stabilizes the fire protection for the next five years for all of the

districts," said Jeff Griffin, ESF&R

board chairman. "There's strength in numbers. We're now being served by

lots of resources and training and departments that an independent fire

department could not afford."

With all of these services, residents have routinely spoken out in the

past against having a consortium, stating in letters-to-the-editor that they

prefer independent fire departments. "I'm certainly sensitive to the folks that

say, `If we have our local fire department then we would have better service,'

but in my professional opinion, I've just never been able to see a smaller

department duplicate the kind of services and the amount of resources that

bigger providers offer," Soptich said.

Although the amended contract is designed to be a positive move for

the Valley and Issaquah area, it will result in a levy hike for Fall City

residents of approximately 40 cents. The levy rate is currently set at 84

cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value.

The Fall City area is protected by Fire District 27, which is not part

of ESF&R, but was contracted to provide service for a portion of the city

of Sammamish. When the new contract is signed, District 27 will be short

one-third of its budget that Sammamish had previously provided.

"We can't recover all the money," said District 27 Fire Chief

Chris Connor.

He explained that the law allows the fire district to raise taxpayers'

levy rate to compensate for the funding shortage without going to voters.

But he and other District 27 officials are not happy about it, he said.

"It's our hope that through budget cuts and if the board does raise

[the levy] the amount that they can, the residents will not see any change

in the service they receive," Connor said.

He added that although the Sammamish area District 27

protected was one square mile in size, it was dense with housing subdivisions,

so the fire department will now be short on revenue but its workload will

only be reduced by six percent.

Connor added that district officials had anticipated the Sammamish

move for some time and had built up a reserve fund for the situation.

"We're very happy that we built that up to give us a little cushion

to deal with this," he said, adding that over time, new construction within

the Fall City area could once again lower the levy rate.

Fall City area taxpayers will be receiving a letter explaining the

situation and outlining a plan of action. A budget hearing will be also be held

in late November and will provide opportunity for public participation.

But Redmond's District 34 will still be paid by ESF&R to service

6.5 square miles in the northern portion of Sammamish territory, since its

fire stations are positioned in that area.

Once the amended agreement is signed by all parties, which

should happen in a few weeks, one board of directors position will be taken

away from Issaquah and District 10, and given to Sammamish.

Soptich said the new board me

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