Like the first flowers of spring, a sign supporting the proposed creation of a regional fire authority is visible on the side of the road heading into Cosmopolis from Aberdeen, a splash of red on the drive in. It’s followed scant seconds later by another pushing back against the RFA, reading ”No RFA — Taxes, Fees”
The mood at a meeting Tuesday night between the organizers of the proposed RFA and the public is equally divided. Attended by about 60 people, raising the temperature of the common area of the Cosmopolis Fire Station to a level that left some residents visibly uncomfortable, the public came to air their concerns while chiefs came to help straighten misconceptions and answer questions.
“It becomes one brand new entity with the sole goal to provide fire and EMS service to our residents,” said Aberdeen Fire Chief Dave Golding during the meeting. “It allows us to be fluid in how we provide those services.”
Money, money, money
Money was on the forefront of questions for many residents: what will this cost? And how will it affect us?
“It’s not lost on us. It is an ask,” Golding said. “Going back to where we’re at right now, there needs to be an investment to make it sustainable. That’s what we’re asking the voters for.”
For many residents, that increased monthly cost from raising the ambulance utility fees was not commensurate with the service they perceived they’d receive under the RFA.
“I’m not anti-firefighter,” said Katie Judd, who attended the meeting and asked several questions. “But I don’t think that as a small city that, last year, for a small city that had 250 calls, it really makes sense for us.”
The decision to ask for more is not a decision casually made, Golding said.
“The utility fee — or availability fee — is not an additional $50. It’s an increase to $50. It ranges depending which city you’re in,” Golding said in an interview Wednesday. “Taxes and fees that people are paying are not taken lightly.”
Former Cosmopolis volunteer firefighter Steve Davis opined that the ask was too much during the meeting.
“I think you’re robust in your plan,” Davis said. “I think you’re asking for too much.”
The future for the three departments as independent entities is not a bright one, Golding said — the departments are going to have to consider what gets sacrificed if the departments continue operating at the same level of manpower and funding. Aberdeen and Hoquiam are already at some of the highest call volumes in the entire state, The Daily World has previously reported.
“What we’re doing is not sustainable in the future,” Golding said. “Financially and operationally.”
The increase in funding is intended to fund the creation of four new positions in the RFA — a medical services officer and three new firefighter positions. No new jobs will be created, said Hoquiam Fire Chief Matt Miller — the RFA will work with the cities, providing services to the cities in exchange for services such as finance and IT support, at no cost to taxpayers.
“We’re sharing services to keep costs down,” Miller said.
Members of the public also asked how the new RFA would pay for itself from Day 1 — where would the money come from? The funding, for the first six months of operations, comes from an agreement with the cities, said Hoquiam Finance Director Corri Schmid, who is part of the effort to create the RFA.
“I appreciated the turnout and I appreciated the conversation back and forth,” Schmid said. “Hopefully we were able to shut down some of the false information that is out there.”
Once the RFA has existed for six months, the county will collect the fire tax levy and pass it on to the RFA, while the cities will continue to collect the ambulance utility fees and pass them on to the RFA, Schmid said.
Others asked about changes to the insurance rating, and how it would be affected by creation of an RFA.
“There’s a potential there for more improvement of rating with more personnel,” Golding said.
Part of the process
Many expressed concerns that Cosi’s station would be left high, dry and empty as high call volumes in Aberdeen and Hoquiam pulls assets away. Golding said that the RFA wouldn’t be stripping assets from Cosmopolis, but covering the entire region with more efficiency.
“What is ours is yours,” Golding said. “They’re still gonna be there for you. It’s just a different patch on the shoulder.”
Cosmopolis is currently the only department of the three with a volunteer program — it’s an all-volunteer station. Golding said that experience in dealing with the reporting that goes to the state for volunteers will be invaluable in supporting the RFA’s own expanded volunteer program.
“The city of Cosmopolis has experience in operating a volunteer department. We will be learning from the city of Cosmopolis — basically learning that process,” Golding said. “We do receive a handful of calls through the year from citizens of Aberdeen about volunteering. This would allow those interested to volunteer for the RFA rather than within each city.”
Expansion of the volunteer program would allow the Cosmopolis fire station to maintain an overnight duty staff of two volunteers, said Cosmopolis Fire Chief Nick Falley. One of the volunteers at the Cosmopolis department, Sam Lichty, spoke from the audience, talking briefly about the requirements of volunteering and entreating the audience to look into it.
“We need volunteer firefighters who live close to here,” Lichty said.
Golding said the existence of an RFA volunteer program had other potential benefits, including being able to create programs to bring in younger people.
“The part of that I’m more excited is for our younger generation to get involved in the fire service,” Golding said. “That is something that we’re missing or lacking or lacking in Aberdeen and Hoquiam — that type of program where kids coming out of high school can get involved with the fire service.”
Miller also spoke about a question he’d heard possibly involving a misreading of how much the three at-large commissioners for the RFA would make.
“It’s $9,900 a year for commissioners, not $96,000,” Miller said. “It’s not a job, it’s a side gig.”
If the RFA measure passes on the April 25 ballot, much of the planning for the first day is already done, Golding said — as soon as the organization springs into being on Jan. 1, 2024,
“We’ve kind of prepared for this. We’ve got a good framework of an operational policy manual that we can throw on the table on day one,” Golding said. “We’ve already done some of the legwork.”