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Fire districts discuss possible partnerships
ARLINGTON — After an Aug. 30 meeting between representatives of 14 fire districts, the Arlington City Council convened a second special meeting with several North Snohomish County fire districts on Thursday, Oct. 25, albeit with the representatives of the Marysville and Darrington fire districts absent this time around, and representatives of the Tulalip Bay Fire Department and the North County Regional Fire Authority expressing reservations about continuing to participate.
Don Bivens, an emergency services consultant with 30 years of experience in the fire service, once again presented the evening’s program, this time outlining the steps that his group and those agencies willing to participate would need to undertake in order to determine whether the fire districts in question should form a regional fire authority or some other form of partnership.
Bivens explained that a baseline evaluation of the agencies that might be involved in such a consolidation would require much of the acquisition of background data and gathering of stakeholder input to be performed, at least in part, by the agencies themselves, which led to some debate about how many of the fire districts in question might even be willing to be involved enough to contribute to the funding of such a study.
Arlington City Council member Debora Nelson wondered whether the participating fire districts would be compelled to follow the recommendations of such a study.
“No, we’re not going to ask you to promise to do whatever the report says,” Bivens said. “I would ask that the agencies involved commit to increasing efficiencies, decreasing duplications and combining where it makes sense to do so.”
Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Rick Isler pointed out that, while the study proposed by Bivens would note the numbers of volunteers in each fire district, the label “volunteer” itself applies to very different categories of work, depending upon the fire district. Bivens assured Isler that the report would differentiate between those types of volunteers.
Tulalip Bay Fire Commissioner Bill Dobler questioned the goal of consolidating the fire districts in the first place, since he perceived less benefit to his own agency, to which Bivens replied that ever-diminishing finances have made the current way of doing business unsustainable for a number of the agencies in question.
“There’s no way one community is going to subsidize another,” said Bivens, when asked how differences in levy rates between combined agencies would be reconciled. “But there are ways that they could share costs and both benefit from greater levels of service.”
Bivens estimated that the study could be completed, with a final recommendation report, within 150 days of starting, but one significant holdup was agencies such as the North County Regional Fire Authority, as represented by Commissioner Richard Bratland, indicating that they might not want to take part in the study, much less in the course of action recommended by the ultimate report.
“As jurisdictions drop out, the costs of the study overall go down, but the percentages for which the agencies are responsible also change,” Bivens said. “Those decisions are up to your elected officials.”
Bivens ultimately agreed to deliver estimates on the cost of such a study, both with and without the Tulalip Bay Fire Department and the North County Regional Fire Authority taking part, by Tuesday, Nov. 13.