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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
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
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