OLYMPIA AND TUMWATER

Proposed Regional Fire Authority committee holding a Town Hall session on Monday

Both city councils received briefings on Tuesday; reactions slightly differed

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Tumwater and Olympia city council members received separate briefings on Tuesday about the proposed Regional Fire Authority and the Fire Benefit Charge proposed to fund much of it.

Tumwater’s briefing started at 5:30 p.m. and was a city council work session. Olympia’s briefing started at about 8 p.m. as the latter half of its regular weekly meeting. 

The cities began contemplating a merger of their fire and emergency medical services departments in 2019 and established a committee a year ago to begin planning what might become a ballot issue for voters as early as next year.

A public presentation about the proposed RFA is set for this Monday, August 15, starting at 6 p.m. The Town Hall meeting will be available on Zoom or by telephone. 

This is the Zoom link

To join by telephone, call (253) 215-8782, listen for the prompts and enter the Webinar ID: 850 6919 9938 and Passcode: 984350.

Tumwater City Manager John Doan said the committee will entertain questions and comments from community members at this event.

Tumwater

Tumwater council members gave thumbs up to move forward with plans to propose creation of a Regional Fire Authority. Tumwater City Manager John Doan presented the RFA committee’s work to council members.

At the city council work session on August 9, 2022, Doan was bombarded with questions regarding the RFA operations, budget and level of services it could provide to both cities.

Council member Charlie Schneider noted that the proposed RFA budget in 2024 jumped to just under $40 million. "Even after that, it is jumping up and it sounds like it just bubbling with too many expenses," Schneider said, as he described the projected budget as "excessive."

Doan responded: "Keep in mind you [will have] additional services, and you are adding a transport program (Basic Life Support) and CARES program – both have a significant amount of revenues to them," he explained.

The city manager said the expenses increase yearly between 4.4 to 4.9% -"the cost of an increase in fire department today."

Service enhancement

According to Doan, neither Tumwater nor Olympia currently meet targets for emergency response time. 

He said response time in Olympia takes seven to nine minutes, while Tumwater has more than nine minutes response time. "We really want those to be within a target range of six to seven minutes or less for 90% of the calls. So that becomes an important factor in exploring RFA."

Despite this claim, the November 18, 2019, Interjurisdictional Fire Regionalization Public meeting minutes state that “The Olympia Fire Department is rated as a Class 2 department, which is the highest fire protection rating for the state,” according to the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB). The report continues to describe OFD in glowing terms: “The rating reflects that the department has redundancy of resources, Capabilities that are extensive, and compared to the risk of response, the Olympia Fire Department has the capability to manage the risk.” 

Councilmember Joan Cathey commented that cities may lower response times, but it will cost people more money."

Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley said creating RFA includes some service enhancements, including adding two BLS transport units, CARES UNIT (Community Assistance, Referrals and Education Services), and a model which contains two battalions for staffing.

He said the proposed RFA includes two transport units with 18 EMT paramedics on staff full-time. "This would be response units and transport units so they would be able to respond to calls."

Hurly said having two transport units would help improve response times, which he said is the RFA goal.

For the CARES program, the fire chief said the idea is to provide solutions to individuals other than them calling 911. This program includes hiring three additional FTEs - a licensed social worker and behavioral health specialists to help meet their needs.

"This program successfully provides needed services to residents without having to have them call 911 all the time. Having these calls taken out of the 911 system frees up fire engines and units for other calls, which can respond to other incidents," Hurley said.

Check and balances, RFA autonomy and FBC

Schneider aired community members' concerns about increasing fees and the possibility of future fire benefit charges being costly.

He pointed out that, unlike property tax, which has a 1% cap, the FBC has none. "How will we control these fees so they don't get out of hand and overwhelm the taxpayers?"

He said the fire department is under the city government, where they could control the budgeting and purchasing of items. "Now that we're going to move this to the RFA, they can raise more money, which in essence is going to cost all of us more. And it's just the group of seven individuals that can command that increase at any time."

His other concern is the check and balances of the process, as he believed that RFA autonomy would have the opportunity to dictate how much they want to increase the fee.

"The comment was made several times that if the public didn't like what they are doing, they always vote him out of office. But are we not in the office to represent the community and their concern?" Schneider said.

According to Doan, RFA is governed by elected officials and they would be accountable for the fees they collected and what service they provide.

Doan added FBC needs to be renewed by the voters periodically or every six years.

Consultant for Karen Reid said the voters have the option not to renew FBC if they hate it.

Olympia

At its meeting on Tuesday, Olympia council members agreed to continue the discussion of creating the Regional Fire Authority with a request to the planning committee that it simplify the proposed Fire Benefit Charge formula so that community members could understand it.

City Manager Jay Burney updated the council members on RFA, presenting 60 slides but offered little clarification on the FBC formula.

According to Councilmember Dontae Payne, Olympia’s Council of Neighborhood Associations members has "grave concerns about the FBC."

Payne suggested that the planning committee make FBC as "simple as possible" for the average person who is not following the process.

The FBC is one of the major funding sources for the proposed RFA. The fee would be based on a complex formula that includes the fire risk as one component; the size and type of structures is another component.

Of the 13 RFAs in Washington, four fund them partially through a Fire Benefit Charge. The RFAs with FBC use an identical formula, according to Burney. "What changes from agency to agency is a set of structure classification weights. So what we have control over is how we weight our FBC."

For the Olympia-Tumwater RFA, the suggested formula is:  (Square root of Square footage) X 18 X (cost per gallon of water or CPG/100) X category weight factor X discount.

The factors in the formula include the square footage of a structure, including unheated spaces such as garages or warehouses. 

The RFA planning committee has proposed FBC classifications and weights for residential and commercial properties.

However, there is no explanation of how to calculate the CPG.  In the examples given in the RFA committee meetings, the calculated CPG would be $83.38 per gallon of water.

Burney noted that no hazard surcharges were proposed.

The city manager added that state law requires the FBC to include discounts for senior and disabled persons and exempts religious structures and nonprofit low-income housing. There is also a proposal of a 10% discount for properties that are sprinkled.

Where did the formula come from?

Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Clark Gilman questioned the planning committee on whether the RFA should follow the standard model for FBC.

"Why are we accepting a formula that was designed for other cities? And why it can't be a flat fee, or why can't it be based on the risk of emergency medical services? Where does this mandate to have this complex formula come from?" Gilman inquired. Most analyses of calls made by fire departments show that fewer than five percent are to put out fires; the rest are for rescue and emergency medical assistance.

According to Councilmember Lisa Parshley who sits on the RFA planning committee, the formula is based on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Karen Reid, a consultant for the RFA committee, further explained that the formula is not in the statutes, but it has been derived based on national standards and national agencies that guide fire service and response.

Gilman expressed hesitation in supporting the RFA to move forward. "It seems difficult not to put the burden on the most modestly priced single-family houses all over the city."

Gilman said he does not like the idea that the only discretion they have is the weight of the properties and cannot do something about the disproportionate fee for small versus the big retail businesses.

"[According to the General Government], structure fires are a very small part of the service calls. While calls for service are increasing, I don't believe that structure fires are increasing. It doesn't make sense to me to charge property owners in the district to pay for relatively expensive structure fires," Gilman pointed out.

Burney admitted there were few calls to put out structure fires, but said they still need the equipment and the staffing to respond to fire incidents when they happen.

"A ladder truck is not important until you need a ladder truck. You might only use a ladder truck twice a year, but those two times save lives. We have to have the equipment and the fire staffing and the training that goes with it so that we can respond any moment in time," Burney said.

Public comment: 'a shameful history of regressive taxes'

Community member Larry Dzieza said during the meeting’s public comment section that the FBC formula is regressive. "The bigger and more expensive the property, the less you pay – whether by square footage or by the value of the building."

Dzieza said the RFA planning committee's claims of fair fee distribution are misleading.

Using the examples provided by the RFA consultants, Dzieza sent an Excel sheet to the councilmembers showing a million-dollar house pays only 13 cents per square foot, while the house a quarter of that value and 1/5 of the size pays 29 cents per square foot. He said the apartments pay more.

In the commercial category, Dzieza said a commercial building of 210,000 square feet, such as something the size of a Costco warehouse, would pay 15 cents a square foot, while a mom-and-pop store of 1,500 square feet would pay 150% more at 39 cents a square foot.

"We have systemic problems of inequality today. Do not accept a formula that embeds inequality into the future, Dzieza told the councilmembers. "Washington has a shameful history of regressive taxes, don't add another one."

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  • JulesJames

    The Regional Fire Authority proposal is one of the worst ideas I've every seen in local governance. Leadership is essentially unchallengeable. The formula for financing this monster is structured to charge the most unlikely to need Fire Department services (high-end homes and larger businesses) while entirely ignoring the car accidents and aid calls that are the vast majority of the workload. The financing is an uncapped blank check tax. Fire protection is a basic municipal obligation. If either Olympia or Tumwater is unable to independently fulfill its obligation, lets be talking annexation, or new leadership.

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