MARYSVILLE – If you’re having a medical emergency or fire, nothing’s more important than time.
Reducing response time is just one improvement residents can expect if they vote for a Regional Fire Authority on the April 23 ballot, supporters say. Another reason for an RFA is NSF, or non-sufficient funds. The fire department is running out of savings used to keep the operation running the past few years.
If the RFA fails, there could be cuts as early as 2020, Fire Chief Martin McFalls told the Marysville Kiwanis Club Wednesday.
The new authority would combine the Marysville Fire District and Snohomish County Fire District 12. Equipment, resources, firefighters and EMS workers would come under one department, supporters say.
“It’s the power of consolidation,” McFalls said. “It will remove all the fat – the duplication of services.”
McFalls said response times in the city average 6 1/2 minutes and in the district eight minutes. If the RFA is approved, those times should go down because of the availability of more firefighters. Ten new ones would be hired with the RFA. The goal is to have 24 firefighters on duty at all times. McFalls said that would mean their ladder truck, which is out of service “more than not” because of a lack of firefighters, would be fully staffed.
That also would mean the department would have to rely less on mutual aid from nearby fire departments. When that happens, those departments bill the victim. It’s not free like it is when it’s your local fire department.
Fire Marshal Tom Maloney said the department’s insurance rating also would improve. “Your fire insurance savings would outweigh this increase” in the property tax, he said.
McFalls added, “It’s critical for your insurance.”
Another benefit, supporters say, is that fire service would have stable and sustainable funding. Since 2007, taxpayers have not been asked to pay more for fire service because of the recession. However, the cost of services has gone up for many reasons.
•The fire district has grown four times larger in size and five times greater in population. It now covers 56 square miles and 82,000 residents.
•The department responded to 14,258 incidents in 2018 alone. And because of the aging population and people with drug, mental health and homeless issues calls are becoming more complex. The fire department often responds with police to calls involving violence. The department is so busy its aid cars have 400,000 miles on them, even though they are only five years old. They already need to be replaced.
Also, the department has the same number of firefighters it’s had since 2005. Getting firefighters is a challenge. “Everybody’s hurting for firefighters” in Puget Sound, McFalls said, adding overtime is a costly issue. They are also hurting for part-time firefighters. With the economy doing well, many are leaving for paying jobs. “The part-time program is tough to maintain,” McFalls said. “It’s struggled for years.”
Maloney said the number of fires is down – partly because they are in the community educating the public. “We educate the kids who educate the adults,” he said. Since taxes were not raised, the department has had to use reserves built up between 2004-09. The MFD expects to have a $2.5 million spending gap in 2019.
“We nursed that reserve fund down to bridge the economic gap,” McFalls said. Also because taxes were not raised, facilities are getting old. “We held off on upgrades to keep us in service during the recession,” McFalls said. “Right now we’re just treading water.” City spokeswoman Connie Mennie said the city knows these types of ballot measures often come down to money. “But the City Council has indicated it plans to lower property taxes to offset” the fire and EMS costs.
For example, if the RFA passes, the cost would be $1.45 per $1,000 valuation. On a $300,000 home, that person would pay $435, about $120 a year more than now. McFalls said people get a lot for their money. “We stack up very, very lean against anybody of comparable size – certainly when figuring in the volume of calls,” he said.
McFalls said the RFA is a good investment. “For PUD and Comcast you spend as much or more a month” than with this in a year, he said. Maloney said the RFA is the right solution for fire and EMS services. “Our elected officials took a long hard look at what would be best for residents,” he said. Another advantage of the RFA is customers will have a greater voice in how their money is spent. “Transparency is being taken to a higher level,” McFalls said. The five-member governing board will include four from the city and one from the county, which better represents residents in the department’s coverage area.
McFalls compared the RFA union to a marriage. “We’ve been going steady for 27 years – let’s make it official,” he said.
In a nutshell
Fire response within city limits now is paid for by the city of Marysville through its general fund, while residents outside the city pay a voter-approved property tax levy.
An RFA has independent taxing authority that provides fire and emergency medical services. Marysville and the fire district have delivered these services under a joint agreement as the Marysville Fire District for more than 25 years. The Marysville Fire District’s service area (which includes Marysville, Fire District 12, Seven Lakes, Lakewood, portions of the Tulalip Reservation and unincorporated Snohomish County) would not change.
Citizens living in the district would pay $11 more a month for a $300,000 home. In the city, the cost would be $21 more a month – if you add in all other city services paid by property taxes.
The measure needs 50 percent approval.
Open houses and RFA talks will take place March 19 at Fire Station 65 at 17500 E. Lake Goodwin Road and March 26 at Fire Station 62 at 10071 Shoultes Road. Each family friendly open house will start at 4 p.m. with the RFA presentation at 5 p.m.