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Who's in, out of regional fire plan?

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By Rikki King
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Fire District 1 is moving forward with plans to form a regional fire authority in south Snohomish County.
Minus a few partners.
Mukilteo and Fire District 7, based in Clearview, both dropped out of talks about the fire authority last week.
Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Woodway have to decide within the next two weeks: Are they in or out?
So far only Fire District 1 and Brier have voted to keep talking.
If approved by voters, a regional fire authority would create a new government body to levy taxes and provide fire protection and emergency medical services in affected areas.
No matter how the cities vote, officials expect to have a south county fire authority on the ballot this fall, Fire District 1 Chief Ed Widdis said.
"It definitely sounds like some of the cities are in," he said.
Leaders from most cities and the two fire districts in south county have been talking about the idea of a fire authority since spring 2011. Now, each city council and fire district board of commissioners must vote on whether they're still along for the ride.
Mill Creek dropped out last month. Bothell declined to participate early on. Woodway only can participate if Edmonds does, due to the way the law's written.
Regardless of what happens, it was worthwhile to get everyone together and talking about regionalization, Widdis said.
"I don't look at it as if anyone gets out of it, it's a failure," he said. "It's just not the right time for them to be a part of it."
After the rest of the cities vote, whoever's left at the table must redraw the plans accordingly, Widdis said. The current fire authority financial model and service plan were based on everyone who was in the talks.
"Now we have to remodel that," he said.
The initial plan was to have the fire authority governed by a board made up of members drawn from throughout the service area.
If approved by voters, the fire authority would exist as of one of two dates: Jan. 1, 2014, or July 1, 2014, Widdis said.
"That's by law," he said. "We can't pick a date."
In addition to taxes, the fire authority is expected to seek voter approval of an additional "benefit charge," similar to a user fee.
The current plan estimates that charge at $10.5 million split among property owners based upon total square footage of buildings in the service area, Fire District 1 Capt. Bob Eastman said.
"We have an initial plan with the fine-tuning still to come," he said.
The decisions being made now will affect property taxes in south county, but exactly how is not yet clear.
Some critics have noted that cities who no longer have to pay for fire departments theoretically could keep drawing the same amount of taxes after creation of a fire authority. That could mean people in those communities would wind up paying more taxes.
All of the participating agencies' firefighter unions also would have to merge, Widdis said.
The fire authority board would appoint its chief.
"Everything goes with the fire authority, the good and the bad," Widdis said. "It's a marriage."
Rikki King: 425-339-3449;
Story tags » GovernmentPoliticsFirefighting

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