Tukwila weighing pros, cons of joining regional fire authority

The City of Tukwila and its residents and businesses are going through an intensive process to determine whether to ask voters to consolidate the city's fire department with the Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority.

Firefighters from several South King County fire departments

The City of Tukwila and its residents and businesses are going through an intensive process to determine whether to ask voters to consolidate the city’s fire department with the Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority.

The timeline calls for the Tukwila City Council to vote by year’s end to move forward the process to annex to the RFA. The city would then hold open houses in January at fire stations, reach out to the business community and hold a public hearing and final vote in February on whether place the issue on the April ballot.

“We will be able to answer questions about what does this mean to me,” said Moira Bradshaw, the city’s project project manager for the annexation, at the open houses.

The city has promised extensive outreach to the public about the annexation and transparency in what would happen with local property taxes that no longer pay for fire services.

There’s an additional step in the process before the City Council places the annexation on the ballot. The RFA has to formally agree to accept the annexation if it’s approved, so Tukwila’s voters know that the RFA have agreed to the “marriage.”

If voters approve the annexation, the City of Tukwila would become part-owner of the RFA and have three seats on the nine-member governing board, filled by Tukwila City Council members. Kent and Fire District 37 will each have three elected officials on the board.

Fire service would transfer from the Tukwila Fire Department to the RFA on Jan. 1, 2017, following several months of working out details, including the transfer of property taxes.

The annexation comes with pros and cons and financial considerations, which a steering committee has been analyzing for the past several months. The committee will consider on Nov. 18 its recommendation to the City Council.

Among the pros are more firefighters and equipment to fight fires, reduced overtime costs with more firefighters to cover shifts and economies of scale in purchasing trucks and equipment that should reduce costs.

Among the cons are the council assuming another regional role on the RFA’s governing board, Tukwila’s community identity diminished due to loss of “Tukwila” firefighters and equipment and slightly higher costs to residential taxpayers, with some paying more and some less for fire services.

Businesses could pay more for fire services because the fire benefit charge is based on square footage and other factors that include such risks as toxic or flammable material stored at the business.

The annexation to the RFA is also another example of the region coming together to provide emergency services more efficiently and at less cost. Already there’s a regional jail and a regional emergency-dispatch center.

“And now we are going to be part-owners of a much-larger, regional fire-protection model,” said David Cline, Tukwila’s city administrator.

Generally speaking the annexation has the support of Tukwila’s firefighters, who regularly jointly train with firefighters from the RFA and throughout the region. Such training helps firefighters from various agencies learn to work and communicate together.

Dawn Judkins, president of Tukwila Firefighters, IAFF Local 2088, sits on the steering committee. Her goal, she said, is not to steer the committee in any direction but as city employees the goal is to be responsible financially for citizens.

She also said consolidation would fix some of the department’s inefficiencies, pay for needed capital projects and add leadership stability after four years with an interim fire chief.

“We are looking to have something permanent in our department, no matter what it is,” said Judkins, who is a fire department captain.

Capt. Dave Woelber, a training officer with the Kent Fire Department, said firefighters support the consolidation because it brings them together as one department, even closer than training together, providing all aspects of customer service.

“We’re all under one governing authority that makes the decisions for the organization for customer service in a more consistent manner,” he said.

Longtime Tukwila resident Jerry Thornton is a citizen member of the RFA steering committee and of a committee that’s looking at the city’s facility needs for new fire stations, City Hall, the municipal court and the police department.

Based on his reading, the steering committee seems favorable to recommending the annexation go to a vote, although there are members who have had quite a bit to say and those who have not, he said. “I know a lot of us think it’s a good idea,” he said.

The city has placed on hold its decision how to rebuild or relocate its four aging fire stations, which are vulnerable to earthquakes and substandard conditions, until after the annexation vote.

If the city annexes, money to pay for fire station and equipment needs would come from the RFA’s fire benefit charge that all properties would pay. The fire benefit charge also pays for fire services; the RFA’s other source of revenue is property taxes, at $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

A capital plan developed as part of the annexation discussion calls for spending $47.7 million on fire facilities, paid for mostly by Tukwila taxpayers and by developers through impact fees.

As a member of the two committees, Thornton has toured the Tukwila’s fire stations – and Kent’s – and spoken with firefighters. After comparing the facilities, Thornton said, annexation “makes all the sense in the world.”

But he also said the committee knows residents and businesses will have concerns about any change.

“And we hope to take care of that by either small group or large group or media efforts and for the people who are on the committee to respond to those concerns,” he said. There are several ways to do so, he said.

One reason for annexation is that the fire benefit charge is based on square footage and on the cost to provide services, unlike property taxes, which take into account only the assessed value of the land and property. The benefit charge will better reflect the cost – and risk – of providing fire services to a particular property.

“The fire benefit charge assesses the cost of fire protection to the heavier uses,” said Cline, Tukwila’s city administrator, such as commercial businesses with a warehouse, for example.

Another “good thing” is that “revenues that are collected in Tukwila for capital to replace the fire stations will stay in Tukwila and be used for Tukwila,” he said. “So that’s kind of a nice benefit that Tukwila is not going to subsidize Kent and Kent is not going to subsidize Tukwila.”

The Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority was created in 2010. In recent years, Tukwila has looked at new models to provide fire services, including joining the RFA. But the option was put on hold while the RFA negotiated a contract to provide fire services to the City of SeaTac.

“Another major difference now vs. then is that the Kent RFA has been up and running for five years and it wasn’t in 2010. It was just starting out. So we have a much better understanding of what to expect,” Bradshaw said. “They have that solid history of five years of operations.”

Questions still remain, including:

• What will the RFA call itself if Tukwila annexes? Most agree that including the Kent Fire Department in the name wouldn’t be appropriate.

• Where would new fire stations locate if Tukwila joins the RFA? According to Cline, the city already has a new location for headquarters station No. 51 on Andover Park East – the bottom of the hill at South 180th Street in Southcenter. Stations 52 and 53 likely would be rebuilt in the same locations. And, because they are relatively close together, Tukwila’s Station 54 across from Foster High School and SeaTac’s Station 47 could co-locate at the same location. A regional fire service offers the chance to locate fire stations where they serve two areas, in this case Tukwila and SeaTac.

• Will “Tukwila” appear on firefighter gear, equipment and fire stations, which would be owned by the RFA? That’s a concern of some members of the Tukwila City Council. Cline points to what happened in SeaTac, the contract city: Gear says Kent, equipment says SeaTac. Bradshaw said the name on the fire stations is to be determined, but no matter the name, she said most people “are going to call it the Tukwila fire station.”

 

COST TO RESIDENTS

The City of Tukwila has developed estimates that will allow city residents and business owners to compare the operational and capital costs of retaining its own fire department vs. consolidating with the Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority (RFA).

The details of these estimates are available online at tukwilawa.gov homepage, Regional Fire Authority Annexation Steering Committee.

The RFA raises revenues for operations and capital costs in two ways. One is property tax at $1 per $1,000 of assessed value, and the second is a fire benefit charge, which is based on square footage and other factors.

The city raises revenue through general property taxes which got toward providing fire and other city services such as the Police Department and typically asks voters to approve a property-tax levy to raise money for capital costs for such items as facilities, equipment and vehicles.

Here are the 2015 estimates, based on a home assessed for tax purposes at $266,000, the medium value of a Tukwila house, and 2,640 square feet:

WITHOUT THE RFA

Tukwila property tax: $756

Property tax for fire capital projects: $124 (based on 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation

RFA assessment: $0

Total yearly cost: $880

WITH THE RFA:

Tukwila property tax: $258

Property tax for fire capital projects: $0

Kent RFA assessment: $617

TOTAL: $875

PROPERTY TAXES

Joining the RFA will free up the portion of the city property-tax revenue that went to provide fire services and fire capital costs. The City Council is currently going through what’s described as a “transparent” process [click on the Nov. 10 special work session agenda] to consider how much of those available property taxes to spend if the city annexes to the RFA. For the example above, the property tax is $1,235, if the maximum is spent and it also includes the RFA assessment.

STEERING COMMITTEE MEMBERS

The members of the Regional Fire Authority Steering Committee include:

Tukwila City Council

Joe Duffie

Verna Seal

Tukwila administration

David Cline, city administrator

Chris Flores, interim Tukwila fire chief

Fire union members

Dawn Judkins, president, IAFF Local 2088

Alan Codenys, Tukwila firefighter

Merle Brooks, Tukwila firefighter

Residents

Jessica Jerwa

Jerry Thornton

Kathleen Wilson

Business

Roxanne Knowle, Senior Real Estate Manager, CBRE

Mark Segale, Segale Business Park

Genevieve Christensen, Westfield

Non-voting Kent RFA Members

Mike Denbo, Fire District 37 commissioner

Jim Schneider, Fire Chief Kent RFA

Ray Shjerven, president, IAFF LOCAL 1747

Tukwila staff

Moira Bradshaw: moira.bradshaw@tukwilawa.gov; 206431-3651

Vicky Carlsen: vicky.carlsen@tukwilawa.gov; 206-433-1839

 

 

 

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