Voters in Gold Bar and Index will be asked to combine Snohomish County Fire Districts 26 and 28 in an upcoming election.
As of Wednesday, March 1, the two virtually volunteer-driven districts began working under a four-year interlocal agreement (ILA). The contract consolidates most operations, leadership and government, creating one fire chief and one assistant fire chief position, and combines each five-member board of commissioners into one 10-member board. The unified services are designated as Fire District 26, however, Fire District 28 still exists.
“The whole idea behind the merger is to create more efficient fire departments,” said Assistant Fire Chief Ernie Walters, former chief for Fire District 28 in Index.
Under the ILA, the two districts still have individual insurance plans, fund elections separately, and can’t tax as a single entity, Walters said. They also have two small separate budgets, but the majority of operations are now part of one blended, nearly $1.5 million annual budget, he said.
The consolidated district serves roughly 7,500 people within 206 square miles, Walters said. Recruiting volunteers, which is often trying for both districts, should come easier now. Higher call volumes, the chance to work with more volunteers and emergency responses with a variety of training will likely appeal to more people, he said.
Walters said staffing has already improved. Before the consolidation, Fire Station 55 in Index had one part-time volunteer firefighter on duty during the day alongside Walters. There were 12 volunteers to choose from in the area. Now, there are about 70 — the majority are trained as EMTs — between Gold Bar and Index that can fill about five positions for every shift, he said.
Beginning this month, all stations will be manned around the clock, except Fire Station 53, which won’t likely be staffed full time until next year, Walters said.
If the public approves the merger, district 28 will dissolve, and the ILA will be void, said newly appointed Fire Chief Eric Andrews, formerly chief for Fire District 26 in Gold Bar. Joint operations under the ILA and merger will be phased in. Once officially merged, the number of board members will be reduced until only five seats remain, he said.
Andrews said the new system will also help the districts use money more efficiently. Taxpayers won’t get anything back because of the merger. The plan lessens the likelihood they will be asked to spend more on those services, he said.
Every year in Washington, taxing districts are limited to a 1 percent property tax increase from the previous year. Before Initiative 747 was passed in 2001, local taxing districts with fewer than 10,000 residents could raise what they collect by up to 6 percent more from the previous year. Andrews said it’s problematic the property tax limit fails to account for inflation.
The price to provide services continues to rise, and the cap does not always cover expenses.
Andrews said costs increase by about 3 percent annually, and Walters said, in some areas, by about 6 percent. Walters said District 28 has always been able to get by, which has meant sometimes holding off on equipment replacement or purchases.
If taxing districts want to raise the ceiling, they have to go to the voters. A bill has been circling in the Washington Legislature this year that would eliminate the 1 percent property tax limit and align limits more closely with inflation.
Andrews said it is hard to explain to some voters why the fire district regularly comes to them with the request for more funding. He points to the initiative, but said perhaps it wasn’t understood at the time that permission would be needed each time taxing districts wanted to raise more than the cap.
“Some people say we are always asking for more money,” he said. “You guys wanted us to ask you for money — you wanted it that way.”
Other fire districts in the area have merged or are considering a merger, including Monroe’s Fire District 3, which voters approved merging with Clearview-based Fire District 7 in 2016.
Andrews said the request to merge might be included in the 2017 general election, but the board of commissioners can vote to place it on the ballot at any time.