Chief Kanim Middle School was packed with Fall City residents the night of March 28, as the Fall City Community Association held a formal debate on the proposed merger of Fire District 27 and Fire District 10.
The merger between Fire District 27, home of Fall City Fire Department, and Eastside Fire and Rescue’s Fire District 10 will come before the voters this month, proposing a new tax structure and changes in operations and staffing.
The proposition intends to improve financial stability and improve service for the district, but discord over the method has been a part of the process from the beginning.
At the debate, eight audience-submitted questions were asked to representatives of the pro-merger side and an anti-merger side, all four of which are Fall City residents. Representing the pro-merger side were Brandon Bothwell, a firefighter with the Bellevue Fire Department, and Jay Bluher, who has worked as a career and volunteer firefighter for Fall City. Against the merger were Kevin Hauglie, local business owner and former fire commissioner, and Robert Angrisano, a former firefighter, EMT and fire commissioner.
The central topic of the night was how the district’s level of service would be affected by the merger. Bluher said the merger would allow them to be fully staffed with at least three firefighters. He also cited situations in which additional resources have been denied from nearby agencies as each agency had to handle calls within their jurisdiction. With a merger, he said, partnerships with other fire stations could be utilized to help out on one end of the district, while crews are made available to respond to a call in Fall City.
He also spoke to additional special operations teams the district would have access to, including swift water rescue and technical rescue. Buhler also said another benefit would be the avoidance of future expenses thanks to shared equipment.
“Since resources can be shared in a merger, that one backup fire engine and one backup aid unit can be shared among four stations — that’s a big cost savings,” he said. “In total, the cost avoiding savings will be about $1 million over 10 years.”
Speaking against the merger, Angrisano cited staffing levels and the mutual aid agreement that exists between Eastside jurisdictions. Between 11 career firefighters, 12 volunteers, a fire chief and a battalion chief calls get more than three firefighters more than 98 percent of the time, he said. The department should still hire a 12th firefighter to further improve staff levels, but that does not need a merger.
He also talked about the mutual aid agreement that has neighboring fire districts send additional resources out to nearby communities when possible. The response often results in more people and equipment than can even fit on a Fall City block, Angrisano said.
The financial element of the merger was also a big theme of the night. Bothwell spoke to why a merger was necessary for the financial stability of the department. Due to expenses increasing faster than revenue, the department can’t keep up and now expects a budget shortfall of $56,000 for 2019. There are also planned expenses that do not yet have money allocated for them. Additionally, the fire station requires maintenance and repairs. With District 10, they would have access to more resources for maintenance and equipment.
Bothwell said District 10 has $6 million in reserves set aside, and 27 joining that group would make them a part of the system with a healthy financial backing.
On the other side, Hauglie explained why the merger was unnecessary from a financial standpoint. District 27 will soon be “debt free and cash strong,” he said. By 2021 most of the long term payments the district has been making will be complete. In 2018, he said, the district’s reserves were between $1.5 million and $1.7 million, showing they were healthy as an independent entity.
Hauglie argued against the merger as it would mean giving up the taxpayer-funded district’s assets to the larger organization.
“Like all fire departments, the assets are on replacement schedules and associate reserve funds as we are well positioned to do just that, financial management and accountability has been a hallmark of our operations,” he said. “If we merge with Issaquah District 10, we turn over our fire station, our assets, your assets, equipment and all of our cash to District 10 and end our fire department as we know it today.”
The debate ended on the question of local control of the fire services. Hauglie explained that under the merger, the three District 27 commissioners would join the five District 10 board of commissioners members to form an eight-person group for a limited time. As the District 27 board members terms run out, the board would be reduced back to its legal limit of five members.
According to District 27’s official website, they have 3,812 registered voters compared to District 10’s 15,122 voters. Residents are worried that the population difference between the two districts would make electing people to represent the interests of Fall City and the surrounding area significantly more difficult.
As an example, Huaglie cited Pine Lake Fire Station 81 in Sammamish, saying they had their fire engine and crews removed and is now operational for reduced hours with only an aid car to respond to calls. He said this is an example of how losing local control could affect the area.
On the pro-merger side, Bluher said Fall City would not be giving anything away, but joining a district with better access to resources and lower costs. To address the worry about the representation of voters on the board of commissioners, Bluher cited the community’s neighbors in Carnation.
Carnation is part of District 10 and has even fewer voters than the Fall City area does, but anywhere from one to three Carnation representatives have been on the board since 1999.
For more information on the debate, go online to the Fall City Community Association’s website at www.fallcity.org. More information approved by both the pro-merger and anti-merger side is available on Fire District 27’s website at www.king27fire.com. The Fall City Community Association also plans to upload the entire video recording of the debate.