Lynnwood voters are getting closer to seeing a Regional Fire Authority (RFA) measure on the ballot this August, which would consolidate the Lynnwood Fire Department and Fire District 1 into one entity called South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue.
The Lynnwood City Council approved a resolution on Monday night to put the measure on the ballot in a split 3-3 vote, with Mayor Nicola Smith casting a tie-breaking yes vote. Councilmember Shannon Sessions recused herself due to a potential conflict of interest.
With the Lynnwood City Council’s approval, the resolution still needs to be approved by the Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners. If that happens, it will appear on the August primary ballot. It will need 50 percent voter approval from the area of the RFA, which would include both Lynnwood voters and those living within the boundaries of Fire District 1 combined. The Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on the resolution during its meeting on Tuesday, May 2.
Dissenting voters from the Lynnwood City Council included Councilmembers Ian Cotton and George Hurst, who both served on the RFA Committee, which has been meeting since October 2016 to make a plan for the creation of an RFA agreement between the City of Lynnwood and Fire District 1. Councilmember Shirley Sutton cast the third no vote.
Cotton said he is not opposed to the resolution per se, but he would have liked for the City Council to have more time with it before making a decision.
“I don’t think a resolution to put this on the ballot is a bad idea,” Cotton said. “I think putting this resolution forth to put this on the ballot at this speed has been dizzying. I think that we would benefit from taking a pause and answering some questions internally as the city before we put something forward in a resolution that essentially ties our hands from further discussion.”
Hurst shares similar concerns.
“I can’t shake the fact that the RFA plan draft was just presented on Monday last, and we have not really had a chance for citizens to vet it,” Hurst said. “I worked hard on this thing, and so really I am not voting against the resolution based on the merit of an RFA, we can’t talk about that. It’s just this process that’s happening that I can’t abide by.”
Hurst also said he disagrees, specifically, with two elements of the resolution: the proposed financing of the RFA and the transition governing board, both of which were approved by the RFA Planning Committee on Monday, April 17. The RFA Draft Plan as a whole was unanimously approved by the committee.
The RFA draft plan has funding coming from a $1.50 RFA property tax levy. This levy would eliminate the current Fire District 1 tax levy and reduce the city’s levy capacity. Current EMS levies would also transfer to the RFA. All levies have a growth cap of 1 percent per year.
The RFA Planning Committee also extensively discussed the possibility of introducing a Fire Benefit Charge, which would also lower levy taxes. They ultimately decided to leave adding such a charge up to the new RFA Board, if an RFA is approved by voters.
Hurst would have preferred seeing the Fire Benefit Charge presented in the draft plan, as it would have needed 60 percent of voters to approve the plan to be enacted, which he said would give Lynnwood voters a stronger voice in the creation of the RFA. Fire District 1 voters outnumber Lynnwood voters nearly four-to-one.
Governance of the RFA was another point of contention for Hurst, as well as for members of the public who spoke during Monday night’s meeting. The proposed governing transition board would consist of seven total members, five Fire District 1 commissioners and two City of Lynnwood appointees. Then, in transition to the permanent board, positions held by three of the Fire District 1 commissioners and two City of Lynnwood appointees would be elected in 2019. The positions held by the two remaining Fire District 1 commissioners would be elected in 2021. The five positions elected in 2019 would represent specified districts within the RFA area, two of which would have boundaries that include the City of Lynnwood. The two positions elected in 2021 would represent the RFA region at large.
Hurst a few weeks ago had brought the idea of having a transition board that would be entirely re-elected in 2019 to the RFA Planning Committee. He stated that would give the RFA a clean slate following racially insensitive comments made by two Fire District 1 commissioners during a break in their meeting on March 7. That proposal was met with resistance by Commissioner Richard Schrock, who said cutting the terms short was unfair to the voters who elected commissioners for six-year terms less than six years ago. Schrock’s term is set to end in 2021.
Schrock said during the RFA Planning Commission meeting on April 10 that such a proposal was a deal-breaker. Commissioner Bob Meador, one of the two accused of making racially insensitive remarks, said he felt singled out by the proposal.
The compromise made last week by the RFA Planning Committee was to keep the two fire commissioners with longer remaining terms on the transition board through the end of their term. One of those commissioners is Meador.
“It just seems odd to me that one of the fire commissioners that will continue is actually a commissioner where the Fire District 1 union voted a no-confidence vote on that commissioner, “ Hurst said, “and yet we are going to pass a plan that includes having that commissioner as one of the longer running members of the RFA board.”
More than 15 members of the public, half speaking in Spanish through a translator, also addressed the council on Monday against the resolution, sharing the same concerns about the remarks made by Chan and Meador, and the idea of the city working with them.
“Would you accept that same disparaging joke about women or seniors?” said Rosamaria Graziani. “Jokes or not, Commissioners Chan and Meador’s remarks are inexcusable and their apologies, frankly they should feel embarrassed. It was a non-apology.”
The three Lynnwood City Councilmembers who voted to approve the resolution shared the same sentiment: It’s time to hear from the voters.
“Ultimately, we as a City Council do not decide the future of this proposition. Ultimately the voters decide, and for something this major, for something with tax implications, for something with governance implications, that is right and proper,” Councilmember M. Christopher Boyer said. “What we are voting to do is to send this plan to the voters, whether we agree with it, whether we disagree with it, it is time to give this plan to the citizens of Lynnwood, to the citizens of FD1, and let them make the decision.”
In casting the tie-breaking vote, Mayor Nicola Smith voted yes as a representative of the executive department and the staff’s opinion.
“For the financial stability and well-being of our residents and this city, and to take care of the 25-year conversation where people have come to the table to talk about this as a good idea for everybody, I am going to be the tie breaker vote to take this resolution to the voters,” Smith said.
The resolution will appear on the Aug. 1 ballot if approved by the Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, May 2. For more information about the RFA, click here.
–By Natalie Covate