Fire districts agree on consolidation

Published on Thu, Jul 7, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The consolidation of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) and Fire District 4 is complete after district officials from both sides signed a contract at a joint meeting last week.

The contract, which officially went into effect July 1, is expected to improve response times to the regions where the districts’ coverage areas overlap, District 4 fire chief Bill McLaughlin said. NWFR covers Blaine and Birch Bay south to Smith Road while District 4’s area stretches from East Smith Road to the northern portion of Lake Whatcom.

Consolidation means the two districts would share funds and personnel. For the past year, District 4 firefighters have been responding to fires in the southern portion of NWFR’s coverage area, McLaughlin said. The consolidation will take some pressure off NWFR’s firefighters while District 4 will get to train with NWFR’s chief officers.

NWFR fire chief Tom Fields said the consolidation could lead to a merger, which requires a vote of the people.

The timing of a merger depends on changes in the two districts’ separate tax levy rates, which McLaughlin said are currently too different to make a merger attractive to voters. NWFR’s rate is $1.50 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value while District 4’s is $1.09 per $1,000. McLaughlin said neither board wants to bump District 4’s rate up 39 cents or drop NWFR’s rate, which would lead to cuts in service. McLaughlin estimates a merger is at least three years away.

Under the consolidation agreement, Fire District 4 will pay NWFR $675,000 for the remainder of 2011 and about $1.3 million for 2012. The payments are identical to the projected budget that Fire District 4 would have spent had the consolidation not occurred, McLaughlin said.

The consolidation agreement also helps settle the issue of who will replace Fields as NWFR fire chief after he retires in January 2012. After  weeks of discussion, McLaughlin said the two boards of commissioners agreed to open the fire chief position to applicants from inside and outside the districts.

Both boards agreed to hold an open application process, which McLaughlin said could take between three and four months. However, the consolidation agreement says the two district can have only four chief officers under the fire chief, which means one of NWFR’s chief officers or McLaughlin might have to step down if an outside candidate is chosen. McLaughlin said the districts have not yet determined how they will handle that scenario.

Fields and NWFR’s board wanted to forgo an outside application process and promote directly from within the two districts. Fields said it would cost money that neither district has and send the wrong message to his chief officers. McLaughlin had said he would be willing to step down if any of Fields’ chief officers were put in danger of being laid off.