Firedistrict: No guaranteed service to new homes

Published on Thu, Sep 28, 2006 by ack Kintner

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Fire district: No guaranteed service to new homes

By Jack Kintner

The Whatcom County Fire District 13 board of commissioners last week ordered their staff to no longer guarantee their ability to serve new construction projects in their area to the county in writing.
Technically known as letters of service or concurrency, the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services normally requires such guarantees from independent taxing districts before approving a project.

The action stemmed from a decision taken the night by the Whatcom County Council in approving the large Horizons at Semiahmoo residential and commercial development last week.

Despite claims from Whatcom County Fire District 13 commissioners and chief Tom Fields that the district is currently unable to provide an appropriate level of service without more money, specifically a “concurrency” or impact fee of $2,500 per living unit to buy equipment and hire more staff, the council voted unanimously to approve the project.

District 13 had earlier appealed a hearing examiner’s ruling that found no basis in law for the rural district to impose such fees on new development, nor were some potential funding sources taken into account, nor were the fees substantiated by a capital improvement plan.

The council in turn both accepted the hearing examiner’s opinion and then approved the project without any impact fees.

Meeting the next day, the District 13 Board of Commissioners responded by directing their staff “to not sign any further letters of service or concurrency on projects and developments,” according to the wording of a motion that passed unanimously.

Fields said in a later interview that the hearing examiner and county council were ignoring some important details, such as funding medical calls, a large part of the district’s activity.

“The hearing examiner said that we’re funded in part from the Medic One levy last fall, but that isn’t true. We get no funds, and yet are now expected to provide basic life support (BLS) services and transportation to St. Joseph Hospital. Each time that happens two of our people are gone for almost two hours,” Fields said.

“Bobbink was also very much focused on the fees we need to charge,” Fields went on, “but the issue is our lack of ability to keep up with the pace of development. Our commissioners are just trying to get out ahead on this thing.”

Fields said that the dilemma that the 2005 Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy placed his department in, with more services expected of his department without any new funding to support them, is an example of how conditions change.

“The county’s comprehensive plan said that we were able to serve in 2004, but that changed,” Fields said, “so we have to have the latitude to respond to new conditions and let our needs be known.”

Fields said that right now the district has $615,000 in capital reserves.
“We’ve got two engines with more than 100,000 miles on them that must be replaced at a certain age, and that will cost about $427,000 each. We also need to add staff. To legally and safely staff another station will cost us about $815,000 per year. With so much new construction, though, we just can’t grow quickly enough to meet these new needs unless the developers help pay for what we need.”

Hal Hart, director of the county Planning and Development Services, agreed that the pace of growth is an issue, and that it has been occurring roughly twice as fast as was predicted by the Birch Bay Community Plan completed in 2004.

It’s significant. Five percent of the county’s population lives in the Birch Bay Urban Growth Area (UGA) but in the next two to three years they’ll have 20 percent of the county’s growth, because their unused capacity for growth.

That is attractive to developers who have to pay a lot for that same capacity in Bellingham terms of impact fees for parks and roads, so they go where the cost is less.

The idea in Birch Bay particularly is to figure out a way to maintain the quality of life while making sure services are available and that development’s not eating up all our capacity to deal with it.”

Though district 13’s action could conceivably freeze any developments that require but do not yet have a written guarantee of service, Hart said that he intended to sit down with Fields, “within the next few days, as soon as we get written notification of their action,” to discuss solutions.

“We’re all struggling with how best to pay for growth,” Hart said in an earlier interview.

“One of the key things we’d be looking for would be a capital facilities plan that would include ways that the fire district measures its capacity as against demands for service, and what funding sources are available to help fund the need to increase that capacity.”

Such funding would include developer contributions, “but what developers tell us is that they want a certain amount of predictability, and without a plan in place that shows them how their fees are computed, they don’t feel they have that.”

Next week Hart will ask the county council to fund a planning and development department initiative designed to develop strategies leading to short and long term ordinances concerning impact fees.
He plans to hire Transpo Engineering to work on traffic and Eco-Northwest to work on financial planning, “since we’ll be looking at traffic and parks, but we’ll also develop ways of working cooperatively with the independent taxing districts, including sewer, school, water and fire districts.”

Fields said the district is actively pursuing funding through grants and other means.

“We’ll be able to save some administrative expenses and slightly raise the levy rate if the proposed district 3 merger goes through with district 13,”he said, “and we’re the first district in the county to receive some of the new Commercial Equipment Development Assistance Program (CEDAP) grants. We’ll be training on two new rescue tools early this next month.”