Speakers on both sides of the proposition to create a new regional fire authority (RFA) for Olympia and Tumwater faced off Wednesday night at a Voter Information Forum.
The event was co-sponsored by The JOLT News Organization (publisher of this news service) and the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, with Thurston Community Media providing coverage of the event. The full recording of the forum is available above this story and at this link.
Ballots for the special election are set to drop in the mail this Wednesday, April 5, and are due by Election Day, Tuesday, April 25.
Advocates for Proposition 1 argued that voting to establish the Olympia Tumwater Fire Authority would lead to better response times and more efficient delivery of fire and emergency services. Opponents claimed the proposed RFA would be unstable, risky, and fails to address the need for additional firefighters, equipment or fire stations.
The Vote Yes team, which favors creating the RFA, included Olympia Councilmember Lisa Parshley, Tumwater Battalion Chief Firefighter Donovan Cathey and Lt. Steven Busz of the Olympia Fire Department.
Presenting the Vote No position were former Olympia Mayor Bob Jacobs, former Olympia Councilmember Pat Cole, and retired state budget manager Larry Dzieza.
During the public forum, the panelists discussed the current situation of firefighters, the pressing need to improve services, the RFA and its associated costs, including a new fire benefit charge (FBC) for each non-exempt property in both cities.
Why vote "Yes"
The team advocating for the RFA launched their argument by presenting videos of Olympia and Tumwater firefighters discussing their struggles to keep up with the demand and respond to the increasing call volumes.
Cathey said fire and medical services response time is critical for saving lives and property. He said the increasing call volume is driving response times to unacceptable levels.
He presented graphs reflecting the increases in population since 2010 – 21% in Olympia and 51% in Tumwater.
As the population increases in the communities, Cathey noted that the call volume also goes up.
He further stated that in Olympia, the call volume for help had increased 89% for the last 12 years, while Tumwater recorded a 125% increase. "That exacerbates the ability for us to respond in a timely fashion, to have enough people respond to those scenes, and being able to get there and do the job that we need to do and to help the public."
According to Cathey, there are frequent overlapping calls in Olympia and Tumwater. The simultaneous calls in Olympia occur half the time. In Tumwater, it happens about a third of the time.
"When multiple calls happen in the same area, response units from other areas have to respond, increasing response times. This situation happens every day in Olympia," Cathey explained.
Regarding staffing level, Cathey said both fire departments could not keep pace with population growth. He said maintaining staffing level is crucial for ensuring they can handle workload effectively.
He said Olympia only had 17 staff members in 2010, which increased by three in 2022.
If the voters approved the RFA, Cathey said there would be 18 new firefighters, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and a CARES (Citizen Advocates for Referral in Education Services) program. "It is a project that Olympia started, but we will stand that up in the RFA."
Opponents of the proposition stated that Olympia is recruiting those 18 firefighters now and will pay them from a federal grant, regardless of the outcome of the April 25 election.
The RFA, Cathey added, would provide funding for maintenance projects such as timely replacement and upgrading of critical response vehicles, equipment and facilities to stay operational.
"I think it provides a stable framework for future response and growth. It allows the fire departments to merge and then be able to grow as the community grows," Cathey said of the RFA.
Parshley said, "Regionalization is how to fix everything in the community."
In the next seven years, the councilmember claimed, Olympia's population will potentially grow by 30%, and she said it is not sustainable.
"We've been accused of creating a crisis,” Parshley said. “No, we're trying to avoid a crisis. It's about to hit when you see the call time going up to nine to 11 or 12 minutes when they should be down at six or seven minutes.“
“We are trying to avoid a crisis,” explained Parshley. “We're trying to build a platform upon which our community can have adequate fire safety."
She added that the Olympia Fire Department responded to more than 15,000 calls in 2022, a notable increase from 1988 which was approximately 3,000 calls.
Why vote "No"
Cole pointed out that the proposal to create RFA does not offer any solution if the problem is the need for more firefighters. He sees the RFA as something that could significantly increase property tax bills.
"It is historically the largest increase either Tumwater or Olympia has put on the property tax bills, much larger than the Parks measure that has been passed," he said.
Cole said there are no new firefighters, equipment, or fire stations in the RFA plan.
But what is in the RFA, Cole noted, is a lot of administrative positions that do not provide the service and do not help on calls. There are three positions in finance and accounting, three human resources, two IT, one maintenance, and one public information. "These are redundant positions that already exist in both cities."
According to the former councilmember, the RFA will not pay for the CARES program and Basic Life Support (BLS).
Olympia has passed ordinances and directed the city staff to pursue these two new programs to hire new people, EMTs with firefighter certificates. According to Cole, they would be part of the BLS program that would not be paid for by the RFA.
Cole explained that the BLS program is designed to be self-funded as insurance, copays, and grants pay for it, while the CARES program is to be funded by federal reimbursements.
Cole reiterated that the fire benefit charge, one of the funding components of the RFA, is an increase in the property tax bill. "It's called a fee and does two things: it can be raised without a vote of the people [can be raised to $40 million without a vote], and it is not constrained by the 1% limit on property taxes."
Since FBC is not a tax, Cole pointed out that it is not tax deductible under income tax.
For the $2 million that RFA would spend on duplicate positions, Cole said that fund could hire 12 new firefighters or get two new fire engines every year.
Cole said RFA has potential risks involved with FBC that require reauthorization in six years. He cited that the West Regional Fire Authority recently underwent a similar process and lost two levies. As a result, they had to close two fire stations. "Given the risks involved, we believe it is not worth pursuing the RFA."
Cole suggested that Olympia should pursue implementing CARES and BLS programs. He said Olympia had done the same thing for its police department with the Crisis Response Unit (CRU).
He said the CRU is a new department under the OPD specifically designed to handle community calls. They are better equipped and better trained to respond more effectively to situations. "This is a less expensive and more appropriate response and frees up the police officers to respond to the calls that need their attention."
Olympia firefighters' union representative disagreed
Busz refuted the opposition claim that RFA would not bring improvements in services.
According to Busz, OFD is behind on the maintenance and modernization of three of its buildings and behind on the replacement of three of its apparatus (fire trucks).
"This is due to the inability to properly fund the reserves that pay for these things. The longer we wait to replace and maintain all of these, the more expensive it will get," he said.
In favoring the creation of the RFA, Busz said the RFA budget plan has identified nine reserve costs that will be fully funded if the new fire department is formed. Of these nine, two of them are apparatus replacement and facility maintenance.
He added that two fire engines will be replaced in 2025, both included in the RFA plan.
Hiring 18 new firefighters has been in place from Olympia, but Busz said none of those firefighters had been hired.
Busz also opposed the claim that the FBC amount can be increased by up to 250% without the people's vote. He said 13 fire authorities in the state's western half use this form of collection for their budgetary needs. "None of them have gone on to bankrupt any of their communities."
He assured that the RFA would not close any fire stations or lay anybody off.
"Firefighters are overworked. They're experiencing high levels of occupational burnout and physical and mental fatigue. It all stems from the rapid growth in our call volumes with no additional help," he said, adding that they believed RFA is the best plan to improve the services.
Firefighters pay increase
In the RFA plan, Dzieza claimed a 6.85% increase in firefighters' pay. He noted there would substantial increases for Tumwater firefighters because they are currently paid less than Olympia's.
"They call that equity. That equity increase makes the Tumwater firefighters much better off than they would if they stay in Tumwater," Dzieza said, adding that these increases add millions of dollars to costs that do not go towards hiring new firefighters, buying new trucks or building a new fire station.
Parshley said she has no problem increasing Tumwater firefighters because she believed it is the living wage for people that do CPR and save lives. "These professionals deserve equal pay and living wage and should be our above median income for Thurston County."
Busz admitted that Dzieza's numbers are accurate but said the Tumwater Firefighter Union agreed to spread the 11% "market adjustments" over the first six years of the RFA. "On day one of RFA, we will not see a rapid increase in our paychecks. We have agreed to this so there would be no major impacts."
Cole clarified that they are not arguing about the firefighters' pay. "If the purpose of the RFA is to pay firefighters more, then say it and we will vote on whether we think that is good or whether it is a priority."
RFA has a stable fund reserve, according to Parshley.
She explained that Olympia's year-end funds pay for many things, such as fire trucks, equipment, building repair, and other competing costs like parks, sidewalks, homelessness housing and others.
"It is not sustainable," Parshley commented.
"RFA provides for that, and it will be more stable, that you can rely on instead of having a 6.9% inflation and not sure if you will have excess money after paying all the bills in the city," she said.
Dzieza maintained that creating RFA is unstable and risky because it requires voters to reauthorize. Without votes to increase the amount of money for the FBC, it may end up closing fire stations and laying off people.
"The risk from this proposal is manifold. Reserve is guaranteed in Olympia, which survived recessions and depressions. In the RFA, you can't count on that," he said.
CORRECTION, April 4, 2023 -- This story previously attributed the quote about firefighter pay raises to Donovan Cathey instead of Steven Busz. We regret the error.