Show us the numbers.
That was one of the clear messages from the Lynnwood City Council following Monday’s work session that featured presentations from Lynnwood Fire Department and Snohomish County Fire District 1 officials on the possible consolidation of the two fire services.
For the Lynnwood City Council, proceeding with further talks with Fire District 1 seemed to be contingent on a close look at the financial ramifications of a possible merger.
“We need numbers,” said Lynnwood Councilmember M. Christopher Boyer. “We need to know how these ideas pencil out. If we can maintain or increase service levels for the people of Lynnwood, while either not costing them any more money or even better saving them money, then we will have achieved what we really need to achieve. I’ve got to see numbers.”
The current round of consolidation talks were initiated by Fire District 1, in large part because its Fire Chief, Ed Widdis, plans to retire in 2016. A merger between two entities generally goes much smoother when one of them doesn’t have its chief moving forward, said Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners Chair Jim Kinney. He also added that it also had been a long time since the District and City had consolidation discussions. Lynnwood and Fire District 1 have been involved in numerous previous unsuccessful talks with each other and other entities about regional fire services.
Fire District 1 currently contracts for fire services with Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Brier and unincorporated Snohomish County and its service area effectively surrounds Lynnwood. (See map)
Moving forward as a standalone fire department appears to be a somewhat shaky proposition, according to Lynnwood Fire Chief Scott Cockrum, who detailed the financial challenges of such a proposition.
Currently, the Lynnwood Fire Department’s budget is 18.3 percent of the General Fund. Cockrum looked at the average for 11 other cities in the region that are similar to Lynnwood and the average General Fund budget cost of the fire departments was 23 percent. Tukwila, a city similar to Lynnwood, spends 19.4 of its General Fund budget for fire services and officials are concerned about being able to sustain that funding over the long haul. Cockrum asked the question whether Lynnwood can continue to afford this?
“Every day we’re struggling with money,” he said. “We do not have enough.”
The department lost a training officer and an assistant chief during the most recent budget cycle.
Cockrum expects Lynnwood to see increased growth over the next five years and as a result the fire department will need to increase its staffing level, training and equipment. Another issue for Lynnwood is its reliance on its partners, Fire District 1 and other fire departments. Calls often require units from both Lynnwood and a unit from a different fire service to respond.
Lynnwood does not have any control over its partners. Cockrum said that Lynnwood can’t dictate what equipment they purchase or their level of training. This heavy reliance on its partners concerns Cockrum, who questions the long term sustainability of the relationship.
Union representatives from both the Lynnwood Fire Department and Fire District 1 both supported pursuing the regional fire service model, citing the stabilization of funding and greater efficiencies as two benefits.
Less duplication of staff and better management of resources also are advantages of consolidation, Cockrum said. The more of a regional asset that a consolidated fire service can become, the better services that fire service can provide, Cockrum added.
The regional approach has worked well with the cities of Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, both of whom Cockrum said are satisfied with the level of service Fire District 1 provides.
Lynnwood’s new Fire Chief, who was hired last year, comes from Sacramento, Calif., and worked in a regional fire service with 40 stations that were created out of 14 different fire services.
“I think it’s been clear to you since I arrived here that I support regionalized fire (service). I think it’s a better delivery system,” Cockrum said. “I think it provides a better level of fire service, a sustainable long term level of fire service and right now you (City Council) have the opportunity to make that what it should be for the next 20 years.”
Councilmember Ruth Ross said that it was important for her that the City approach this issue from a position of strength and that timing also was important.
“We know that we have options,” Ross said.
Boyer favored moving ahead with the discussions with Fire District 1.
“It’s time, past time, that we got on about … finding better ways to deliver fire services, utilizing people’s money more effectively and making sure that the level stays high.
“It’s clear that the status quo is not going to cut it. … This is a model that has served us well but has run its course. So I think we need to look at the other models.”
Cockrum agreed that south Snohomish County was ripe for a consolidated regional fire service approach.
“You don’t lose your fire department,” Cockrum said. “The cities of Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace don’t feel that way.”
The issue of the level of service was raised by the Council and Cockrum was emphatic that it would not change.
“We will not have a reduced level of coverage in the City of Lynnwood, but we will have an improved level of service overall,” he said.
City Council President Loren Simmonds noted that he recently read a story in which a foreign affairs expert said in reference to negotiating with Iran that “the risk of the deal must be weighed against the cost of no deal.”
Simmonds said in reference to the Lynnwood Fire Department, “I think we’ve probably reached the point that no deal is not an option. So we have to be really smart about what we put together.”
The next step likely will be a meeting between the Lynnwood City Council and the Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners during a City Council work session.
Simmonds is hoping the process will be methodical and thorough and that in the end Councilmembers will be able to articulate why they made the decisions they made and how they came to these decisions.
“We are talking about making a significant change in this community with a significant institution that has a longstanding excellent reputation in this community,” Simmonds said. “But we are living in a changing world.”
– By David Pan