Aberdeen Council discusses cost, benefits of regional fire authority

It appears both the Hoquiam and Aberdeen city councils will this coming week approve a joint resolution to put a proposal on the November general election ballot to merge fire departments.

For supporters of the plan, the benefits outweigh the significant rise in property taxes for many residents within the boundaries of what would be the Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority (RFA).

“The benefits of moving forward with the fire authority are economies of scale, revenue, equity, and specific service enhancements — including increasing staffing of six line firefighter positions and one medical services officer to help manage the EMS program, which is huge and continuing to grow for both organizations,” said Don Bivins, fire authority project manager and consultant.

Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard and Bivins presented the plan to the Aberdeen City Council on July 21. Hubbard said he and Hoquiam City Attorney Steve Johnson were drafting the joint resolution to put the plan on the ballot to be presented at meetings the last week in July.

To make the November ballot, it must be submitted to the County Auditor’s Office by Aug. 3, assuming it’s approved by both councils. The plan, because of the funding mechanism, requires a 60% supermajority of the combined voters in both cities to pass.

Hoquiam Finance Director Corri Schmid broke down the cost, and the need for increased revenue to fund the fire authority through a new “benefits charge,” which is based on building square footage.

The “regular” property tax would not increase, she said, but $1 per $100,000 assessed value of property taxes would be diverted from the cities to the fire authority. The new benefits charge would add hundreds of dollars annually to most properties, residential and commercial, including the Port of Grays Harbor.

Schmid gave the example of a 1,694-square-foot Aberdeen home with an assessed value of $106,768 — the benefits charge would increase that property’s annual tax bill by $316.15. The cost is higher, obviously, for larger buildings. There are exemptions for the charge, including churches and schools, including Grays Harbor College. City-owned buildings are not exempt, said Schmid.

“One of the things I’ve been saying is from the beginning we’ve heard the current track that both cities’ fire departments are on is unsustainable, and we need to do something to correct that,” said Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave.

“And by creating the RFA, even though it’s not going to make things cheaper, it’s going to make a better service out of our fire departments, as well as making them sustainable. And for me that says it all.”

Council member Alan Richrod said studies have shown that both fire departments “are anemically staffed, and there needs to be an infusion of resources so that the departments can actually meet the demands for their respective communities. When you come to that understanding, and that conclusion, there’s going to be a cost associated with that. So that cost increase is likely coming to the citizens of both cities, whether you form a regional fire authority or not.”

Council President Dee Anne Shaw said the plan was enlightening.

“I think we all entered into this intuitively, thinking, oh, consolidation, we’re going to save money,” said Shaw.

What was discovered in the process of forming the plan was how inadequately the departments are staffed, while still providing a high level of service “at a very high cost to the professional staff that we have. Neither city alone can afford to do it alone. But together we can,” she said.

Hubbard noted the feasibility study done in 2018 “found that neither department, on its own or combined, is currently able to independently meet staffing standards for a moderate risk incident, which would be your standard residential house fire, and that’s our bread and butter fire.”

Currently, the departments are running concurrent calls — multiple responses at once — 25-40% of the time, and there often isn’t enough staff to cover standards for response in those cases.

“So while we may have nine on duty in Aberdeen and five on duty in Hoquiam, there is no assurance that they will all be available to respond to the next emergency,” said Hubbard, in a case of a structure fire where standards say “within eight minutes of receiving the alarm we should have 15-17 personnel on the scene to effectively manage the incident and provide for the safety of the public and the safety of the firefighters.

“So we’re always trying to achieve that, because if we can get there in the right amount of time with the right amount of people we have the greatest success. We’re protecting lives, protecting property and protecting our firefighters — that is the ultimate goal of the RFA.”

The 10-section plan covers all the details of how the RFA would operate. It will be posted on both cities’ websites after each council has voted on the RFA joint resolution — Hoquiam on Monday, Aberdeen on Wednesday.