Olympia, Tumwater city managers on proposed merger of fire departments
Olympia, Tumwater city managers on proposed merger of fire departments

Source: Google News

By Danny Stusser and Lorilyn C. Lirio

City managers Jay Burney of Olympia and John Doan of Tumwater sat with The JOLT last Friday to answer questions about the proposed Regional Fire Authority, the accompanying Fire Benefit Charge, and the level of services expected if two fire departments merged.

According to Doan, the conversation started in 2018 when Tumwater commissioned Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) on behalf of it and five other local public entities, including the City of Olympia, to do what became the Regional Fire & Emergency Services Study, to “evaluate the agencies in relation to each other, the risk profile for each community, anticipated community growth (and therefore associated risk), and where there might be inefficient duplication of service (and therefore potential efficiencies through integration or partnership).” The quote is from the reports executive summary.

The full report is attached to this story. 

“Tumwater and other jurisdictions were looking at increasing call volumes, increasing costs to operate the fire department at a rate faster than the rest of the city or most other parts of city operations,” Doan said.

The in-depth study, which looked at six jurisdictions’ fire and emergency medical services situations, was dated August 2019. However, the pandemic interrupted the conversation with the community about the fire and emergency medical services.

They picked the topic back up in 2021, according to Doan. Here are edited comments from last week’s conversation:

The JOLT: We hadn’t heard that the public was dissatisfied with the services they received from either city’s fire department. Is it fair to say that this process was stimulated by the 2019 report (Emergency Services Consulting International)?

John Doan:  Yes. We have not heard the public complaining about it. We want the service to be good and great before people complain. We don’t want it to deteriorate to the point where people complain, and then we think about how do we solve it.

Jay Burney: Public safety is one of [the] cities’ highest priorities. That is not one of those services that you wait until you start getting complaints to make adjustments. We need to be strategic. 

When we can see a picture that shows call volumes and increasing population increasing response times getting larger, that divide will only continue to grow if we don’t intervene with a solution that makes more sense for how we provide that response.

The JOLT: We’ve heard that all of the RFAs in the state are a response to the tax initiative that limits revenues to cities from property tax increases to 1% per year. Is that really what’s behind it?

Burney:  Our expenses climb at a rate higher than our property tax and sales tax combined, and that 1% property tax cap certainly is a factor there that is starting to impact our ability to fund our public safety and our fire service to the level that we’d like to fund them to the level they need to serve this community well. I think everyone is talking about RFA because of declining local revenue resources.

Doan: The cost of running the city over the years goes up 3% to 3.5% per year. A 1% property tax cap means we’re always falling behind. In many parts of the organization, we can create efficiency, and we can do the kinds of things that get us closer to the 1%.

I haven’t figured out how to automate the fire service. I haven’t figured out how to use robots or other kinds of efficiencies that we may use in other parts of the organization to make that work in fire. Fundamentally, firefighters and paramedics are the ones who have to respond, and they respond in big expensive vehicles. That’s what the model looks like. That’s how we serve people, and we haven’t figured out how to make that more efficient. The RFA is how you do that.

The JOLT: (On figuring out another way to support the fire services expenses) Why not do a levy lid lift? Why not do them separately? Wouldn’t a levy lid lift be a lot simpler than creating an RFA? Might that even provide revenues at a lower overhead cost?

Burney: It is not untrue that we could go with a  levy lift lid to provide more resources for individual fire departments. [But] it ignores an opportunity to create some efficiencies between the two fire departments from responding together and training together. If you go back and look at the 2019 study, it pointed to this as the best alternative to capture all of that.

The JOLT: Can’t you do training, make purchases, continue collaborating, and work together to fight the same fires without doing the RFA?

Doan: You could do to a limited extent. We’ve all seen relationships between organizations and entities fray. If it’s all brought together under one structure, that doesn’t happen. You hold that relationship together to achieve all of those efficiencies.

The JOLT: [Community member and retired financial and business analyst] Larry Dzieza has come up with an alternative formula, suggesting another way to do it (besides the Fire Benefit Charge). Is it possible or even practical to create the RFA without the FBC? If there is or is it not, are you looking at maybe not using a fire benefit charge that is less regressive or not regressive?

Doan: We are looking at people’s comments. We are looking at how we can adjust that formula to address the people’s concerns. How does the residential relate to commercial and trying to adjust those dials so that we can come back to the committee with some alternatives or ways that if there are particular concerns? We can try to address this.

Burney: As we have run the numbers, we cannot fund the RFA without an FBC. The $1.50 maximum for property tax would not be sufficient to cover combining the departments, and the needs chiefs (Olympia Fire Chief Todd Carson and Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley) have talked about. We have determined that we will need it as a funding source.

The JOLT: We don’t understand why the FBC either needs to be there or needs to be structured as it is.

Burney: We are still working on the formula. We started at a place of a formula that has been used in other jurisdictions, but it can also be modified in a number of different ways. We’re looking at that right now, and a lot of it is based on the feedback we’re receiving and taking into consideration.

At the end of the day, what we want is an FBC formula that is as equitable as we can make it, as least regressive as we can make it, and the most understandable for everyone in our community in terms of how it’s calculated and why it impacts them the way it does.

The JOLT: Everybody agrees that 80% of the calls the fire department handles don’t have anything to do with fires. Yet all of the talks are about the cost of putting out fires. It seems that around the world, even around the United States, there are lots of ways that fire and EMS services are delivered in new and innovative ways. Nobody’s talking about those here. Why not look at creative ways to deliver services that maybe are faster, better and cheaper?

Doan: What’s expensive in the fire department is not emergency medical service, not basic life support because in those cases, we can respond with two or three people (or more in case of advanced life support). [But] it’s vital that when there’s a fire, we would be able to send out an engine or a ladder truck if it’s necessary to a response, which takes more than three people. We must have those larger vehicles and those larger staffing numbers available when a house fire happens.

Burney: The argument that X percent of the calls are fire related, so why do you need the money for it? We still need to train firefighters. We still need to have those firefighters on shift ready to respond. We still need all of that equipment to respond. That’s why all this is important.

The JOLT: What innovations are out there could Tumwater and Olympia could implement?

Doan:  CARES (Community Assistance, Referrals and Education Services) program. It is looking at a different response model. What if we had a social worker and EMT who responded to calls like a grandmother who fell off the bed instead of a big red engine and firefighters? It creates the capacity for firefighters to respond to the call that they need to go. It creates efficiency.

The JOLT: How would part-time fire commissioners be more accountable to the public than city councils?

Burney: I would argue that it becomes more transparent and more accountable as a fire commission than it is in current state right now… it becomes even more transparent and available to the community than it is now buried within other line items of the [city] budget.

I think our council’s strong desire for the RFA commission is that they will be visible and transparent. We will communicate with the committee about what’s happening with our fire service and safety systems. We’re always going to have at least one council member on that commission that links back to the communities that serve Olympia and Tumwater.