The Olympia City Council, on Tuesday, January 17, unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Olympia Tumwater Fire Authority ballot proposition No. 1 concerning the formation of a regional fire authority (RFA) and its plan for governance, operations, and financing, including the imposition of a “Fire Benefit Charge.”
Olympia and Tumwater voters will be presented with the ballot proposition at the special election on April 25, 2023.
Before voting on the resolution, the city council opened a public hearing to allow people to express their support or opposition to the proposed RFA.
Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby said the public process is in compliance with the RCW 42.17A.555, which requires holding a public hearing prior to any action that may be taken by the council to collectively express its support or opposition to the ballot measure.
Olympia resident Larry Dzieza said the plan to create an RFA puts Olympia's financial stability at risk.
Quoting Olympia City Manager Jay Burney, Dzieza said the city plans to loan the RFA $8 million out of reserves.
"That would leave us 'exposed,’" Dzieza commented.
Unlike the property tax, Dzieza said, "the FBC could be increased from $10.5 million up to $25 million by a simple majority vote of the RFA board."
He urged the community members not to “fall for arguments” that the RFA proposal will reduce response times. "They have tried to conflate the city takeover of the Basic Life Support and CARES with the RFA. But those are already in progress and are not dependent on the RFA being approved."
Olympia resident Jim Lazar urged the councilmembers to scrap the RFA process. "If you are concerned about affordable housing, a $30 monthly rent increase should not be on your agenda tonight. That is what you would be voting to support."
He urged the city council to address the parks funding impact of the RFA proposal, saying the creation of such would reduce parks funding by about $1.3 million a year.
Lazar said the RFA would put the future of emergency response at grave risk. He cited that the West Thurston RFA failed to get to the 60% threshold needed to pass the ballot measures and has closed three of their five fire stations and furloughed many professional firefighters.
"I don't want that to happen here in Olympia. We needed to keep our fire department strong and keep it local. Please defer consideration of this resolution until you have approved a solution to the parks funding," Lazar said.
Olympia resident Karen Messmer said an RFA would disproportionately impact the parks budget, which would continue in the coming years.
She said the formation of the RFA would cause the reduction of the parks funds.
She said the funds cover park maintenance, create more facilities and serve the increasing population. "So having a reduction in parks funding right now and into the future would seriously impact what the community expects and what we want to have a great park system."
Proposition is supported by firefighters’ union
Steven Busz, former president and now a member at large on the Board of International Association Fire Fighters Local 468, appealed to councilmembers to support the RFA proposition 1.
In 2022, Busz said, they saw an increase in the demand for fire services by nearly 17%.
"This contributes to ever-increasing physical fatigue, mental exhaustion, and occupational burnout. We are not disposable commodities. Although we are highly trained, we are human beings that are more frequently being exposed to unimaginable situations to the general public," he said.
"We desperately need an increase in the number of resources and personnel that can respond to our emergencies. We need a stable and fair funding mechanism that will propel us into the future as a world-class fire department," Busz added.
Defending the resolution
Olympia Councilmember Lisa Parshley shared that Olympia saw over 370 fire service calls and 125 calls for Tumwater in the first week of 2023.
She cited a situation of an overworked firefighter who, after 24 hours of duty, could not leave work when her shift ended because of the high volume of calls.
"One of the firefighters I was talking to was 24 on [duty]-24 off [duty]. But their call volume was so high she could not leave at 7 am when her shift was over. She had to work from 11 am to noon. She went home and slept until 7 am. Then she got back on shift. She did this for three days in a row because we don't have enough firefighters, we don't have enough resources," Parshley said, adding that the RFA is the best way to provide services and support the firefighters.
In November, Mayor Pro Tem Clark Gilman was the lone voice on the city council who opposed the creation of the RFA.
Although he said he still has reservations and concerns about the RFA process, Gilman voted to pass the resolution last night.
"I still hold those concerns. But I also very much value the principle that we have that once we've made a decision as a council, we move as a body. For that reason, I'm not opposing," Gilman explained.
Councilmember Dontae Payne clarified that the council's vote was about "making a decision for community to make this choice for themselves."
"We are not voting to hurt our community members with a regressive fire benefit charge," Payne said. "This is about presenting this information to all of you so that we can decide collectively for ourselves and how we want to be served by our fire department."
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