Mitigationfees needed to fund county fire district

Published on Thu, Aug 24, 2006 by Jack Kintner

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Mitigation fees needed to fund county fire district

By Jack Kintner

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) is unable to provide fire protection at the minimum standard required by the state, chief Tom Fields said.

Fields said NWFRS, which services Whatcom County fire districts 13 and 3, wants developers to pay concurrency fees, money that allows fire departments to stay current with growing demands for service so the department won’t fall dangerously behind in keeping pace with the area’s rapid growth.

Developers have balked, and the issue comes before the Whatcom County Council at their September 12 meeting.

A former airline pilot, Fields said last week that unless steps are taken soon there’s even more trouble ahead, “like a huge cloud sitting on the horizon that we need to be ready for.” Fields said that his department not only needs to catch up but find ways to address the services demanded by continued growth for the foreseeable future.

The Whatcom County comprehensive plan, revised in 2004 with the addition of the Birch Bay community plan, said that district 13 could provide a four to six minute response, a standard that is no longer being met according to Fields.

The district’s own figures show an average response time to calls, 70 percent of which are medical in nature, that varies from eight minutes in Blaine to as long as 13 minutes in Semiahmoo. Field’s goal, is four minutes, he said.

“I don’t want people to panic,” he said, “but development should stop until arrangements are made to pay the costs of increased requests for service.” Fields said that there is often a lag of up to two years before a newly constructed house begins paying taxes into the fire district and even then it doesn’t pay its share, but the demand for services begins immediately with construction, leaving existing taxpayers facing increased expenses and/or a diminished level of service.

“Why shouldn’t the developers pay for the increased demands for service that they cause?” said former Whatcom County Council member Sharon Roy in an earlier interview. “We talked and talked to our county staff about this all during my term (2001-2005), but their reaction was slow,” Roy said.

Hal Hart, director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said that conversations are currently underway among the county’s department heads to develop mitigation fees for roads and parks, but not for fire protection.

In fact, two years ago legislation passed at the state level that specifically prohibits rural fire districts from making such charges, though they may ask for voluntary contributions.

With a department that’s struggling to meet current demands – let alone deal with thousands of new customers without adequate funding – NWFRS commissioners decided last winter to ask the next large-scale developer to pay a voluntarily concurrency fee of $2,500 per living unit.

That figure was determined by a combination of estimates of how much demand will increase, how soon it will occur and the number of additional staff needed to meet its against funds available.

“We average one service call annually for every 10 people we serve. If 3,000 new homes are built then that figures out to about 5,600 people, or 560 additional requests for service annually. Before long, the demand for new service will begin to take away services from existing taxpayers unless our growth and ability to serve grows concurrently with development,” Fields said, “We don’t want is to have that many new homes and we’re sitting here with an inability to serve them.”

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services figures indicate that there are about 1100 or more homes currently in the approval process in district 13, and as much as three to five times that many estimated to be built in the next 10 years. Historically, actual growth has outstripped estimates.

“We’d need another station, which costs about $816,000 to fully staff 24/7 by the regulations we must meet,” Fields said, “but even using the lower figure of 1,100 homes that sell for $300,000 apiece, we’re left about $300,000 short. We can make up for that by raiding our capital facilities budget or by collecting fees from developers that represent less than one percent of a house’s selling price and that will be passed on anyway.”

Fields ticked off anticipated expenses in just the next few years that will eat up the capital facilities budget, among them a new ambulance to cover medical transportation responsibilities as a result of the Medic One levy.

“We used to call Medic One for a medical assessment and then they’d do the transportation if appropriate or we would and they’d meet us at the hospital and handle the intake procedures so we could get back to work.

“Now the assessment is done by the dispatchers, and we’re expected do provide all basic life support (BLS) transportation on medical calls, leaving the advanced life support (ALS) calls to the paramedics. We receive no funding from the levy for this added service, and each call takes two firefighters out of the area between one and two hours.”

Attorney Doug Robertson, representing Fred Bovenkamp’s Horizons developments, said the fees have to be based on more than just vague predictions. “We’re happy to pay something, but we don’t know how they arrived at these numbers. They do not have the authority to impose them on us and the county can’t give it to them,” he said following a hearing in June.

In response, the NWFRS directors withdrew the suggested voluntary fee and stated flatly that the developments do not have concurrency, that is the additional demands for service they will generate cannot be met by District 13 to the standards required by state and federal regulations.

Concurrency is required by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and is determined at the local level by an assigned SEPA official, in this case by county environmental official Martin Blackman, who ruled that the fees should be paid.

The developers successfully appealed to hearing examiner Michael Bobbink. NWFRS appealed to the county council, saying that the permitting process should have included a more thorough review of the project’s impact on the fire district, including a formal environmental impact statement (EIS). The appeal is scheduled to be heard at the September 12 county council meeting in Bellingham.
In another measure, directors decided at a special NWFRS meeting earlier this month to merge districts 3 and 13 to eliminate what has become an unwieldy NWFRS administrative structure in which two fairly small fire districts are administered independently but also jointly under NWFRS’s umbrella. “Most people won’t even notice the change,” said district 13 commission chair Rich Bosman, but according to Fields it will free up enough money by eliminating duplications to hire more staff.

Only voters in district three will have this on the ballot in next November’s general election. This is because district 13 will in effect absorb district three. Both will raise their tax rates to $1.50 per thousand in completing the merger. The law requires that the rate be the same for both districts, so district three gets a healthy increase of 16 cents while district 13’s rates go up a penny.

The Horizons developments are just two of many projects under way in the 146-square-mile area that NWFRS covers. Grocers Brown and Cole have submitted an application for a two-phase commercial development at Blaine and Birch Bay-Lynden roads. “The elephant in the room, of course, are these commercial developments, because we’re not sure how to assess the impact they represent,” Fields said, “but we know it will be substantial.”

Brown and Cole’s projected development, for example, will have a grocery store slightly larger than that in Blaine (39,000 square feet) plus other commercial development equal in size.

Fields said that they assume that for a regular house there are as many as four trips in and out each day, “but the number of people who will use those commercial developments means a marked increase in service demands. Daily trips can be into the thousands.”

District 13’s 54 square miles are outlined by Bay Road, Delta Line Road, the international border and the shoreline, and include Birch Bay but not Birch Bay State Park. It has stations at Blaine, Birch Bay, Semiahmoo, Custer and Haynie.

District three has 92 acres and extends east to Van Buren Road and from Smith Road north to the border between Nooksack and Lynden. It does not include the city of Lynden. It has stations at Delta, Laurel, Northwood, Wiser Lake and on 19th street in Lynden which also houses NWFRS offices. Combining the two would create the largest fire district in area in the county.

“The merger will allow us to re-deploy people,” Fields said, “so with a fire call the minimum of three responders would be supported by four more from the other department, and with cooperation from district seven (Ferndale and surrounding area) there would be another two firefighters at the scene.”

Fields explained that, “If it fails to pass then NWFRS still goes out of business, but districts 3 and 13 go their separate ways. District 13 could do that but it would be tough for three, “especially since the city of Lynden tends to annex new developments that otherwise would provide some increased revenue for district three.”