Photo by Chris Hendrickson
District 3 Fire Chief Jamie Silva and District 7 Fire Chief Gary Meek teamed up last week to help answer questions about the proposed merger, which is on the ballots as Proposition 1.
Photo by Chris Hendrickson District 3 Fire Chief Jamie Silva and District 7 Fire Chief Gary Meek teamed up last week to help answer questions about the proposed merger, which is on the ballots as Proposition 1.

 

Monroe Fire District 3 kicked off an informational series of meetings last week to provide voters with information about the proposed merger with Clearview Fire District 7.

Monroe voters are being asked to consider the merger, which is on the Aug. 2 primary election ballot as Proposition 1. If approved, Monroe would be absorbed into District 7. Combined, the two fire districts would form one contiguous 107-mile district that includes the cities of Monroe and Mill Creek.

Monroe Fire Chief Jamie Silva and Clearview Fire Chief Gary Meek led an informational meeting last Wednesday, July 13, at the Tualco Grange Hall, with District 3 Commissioners Leslie Wells and Dean Schwartz also attending.

An additional public meeting was held on Monday, July 18, and a final session will take place at noon Tuesday, July 19, at Station 31 in Monroe.

The merger discussion really started as the result of the last recession, Silva said, during which the fire district lost more than a third of its assessed value. Eighty-four percent of the department's revenue comes from property taxes, he said, so the loss was significant.

And even though property values are starting to rise, the department is still not back to where it was, Silva said.

"In 2009, our assessed value in Fire District 3 was $3.7 billion. Today, in 2016, it's only 3.2 billion and projected to be 3.5 in 2017,GÇ¥ Silva said. "We still haven't got back to where we were in 2009.GÇ¥

Schwartz offered some additional insight.

"When the property values go down, the taxes go down real fast, but when the property values come back up it goes up much slower,GÇ¥ Schwartz said. "It's going to take quite a while to catch up.GÇ¥

And the fact that the district's assessed value is lower has done nothing to impact departmental costs, which have continued to rise, Silva said.

In order to continue providing the same level of service to customers during the slump, the department successfully convinced voters to pass a maintenance and operations levy in 2012. The measure expires at the end of this year. As long as the merger is successful, District 3 will not need to renew the levy, and the tax rate for District 3 residents would go down to an estimated $1.98 per $1,000 of assessed value.

If Proposition 1 is not successful, District 3 will be forced to run a new levy, causing the tax rate to increase, Silva said.

Longtime Monroe resident and former fire commissioner Gottlieb Ribary said he is disappointed the merger plans don't include a strategy to improve service to the portion of the district south of the Skykomish River. It takes crews longer to respond out there, he said, and recalled a time when a resident had called for service and a neighboring department had arrived before Monroe.

"I was hoping that you guys would say, "Once we merge, and we get these efficiencies, we're going to be able to provide some services to those of us who lack service,' GÇ¥ Ribary said. "That there would be some opportunity to get to us as quick as you get to the other people who are paying you taxes. That's what I was hoping.GÇ¥

Meek said he completely understood where Ribary was coming from. The whole idea behind a merger is to remove boundaries and broaden the entire vision, so all residents have access to better service. Historically, fire districts have built little kingdoms, he said, and it's a system that doesn't always make the best use of resources.

By merging districts and removing boundaries, it completely changes the way you plan for the future, he said, including building new fire stations. Rather than being confined to the boundaries of a district, the region can plan for stations to be added to the areas with the greatest need.

It's important to build the fire service based on data and best practices rather than emotion, he said.

The merger will help them keep up with the increasing demand for service. The Monroe Fire Department responded to 3,832 calls in 2015, and is well on its way to topping 4,000 this year.-á -á

"Since I've been working down in Monroe, I've realized the back-to-back calls that they have and how often the city of Monroe is stripped ' there are no more units to respond,GÇ¥ Meek said. "If we can break these kingdoms down and create regional fire districts, then we can build a better footprint.GÇ¥

Meek relocated to Monroe from the Clearview Fire Station in February, after the departments agreed to a formal administrative consolidation. It was a way to test the waters and see if the two departments functioned well together. They already jointly operate a maintenance shop and share a Community Resource Paramedic, but the functional consolidation really allowed them to explore what a merger would be like.-á

According to Meek and Silva, it couldn't have gone better.

It's all about removing boundaries to improve service, Meek said.

"If we can get those lines out of the way and build a fire service that satisfies the needs of the citizens, then we're all better off for it,GÇ¥ he said.

The meeting lasted about an hour, after which refreshments were served. Meek and Silva both agree the merger is a step in the right direction, and would be a positive thing for the residents of both districts.

"I'm a believer in regionalization,GÇ¥ Meek said. "I believe in it; I think the lines need to drop.GÇ¥