Arlington voters will decide this upcoming February whether the Arlington Fire Department should join with North County Fire and EMS.

On Nov. 2, members of the Arlington City Council voted 6-1 to put the measure onto the ballot for the Arlington Fire Department to be annexed into the North County Fire and EMS Regional Fire Authority.

Council member Jan Schuette was the sole dissenting vote and said she mainly wanted more time to fully understand the proposal.

"I've had multiple citizens contact me and there are concerns raised," she said, adding she hoped to be able to fully explain the decision to them.

A Regional Fire Authority is a government organization formed from two or more fire districts that provides fire and emergency services to an area and has the ability to tax residents.

Much like school districts, an RFA's ability to tax has limits set by the state legislature and an RFA must put some tax increases to a public vote.

The North County Fire and EMS RFA was formed in 2007 when Fire Districts 14 and 18 joined together in the area northwest of Arlington city limits.

Arlington City Council members and North County Fire and EMS officials have been talking about a potential merger for many months now.

The Arlington Fire Department hopes to gain a more steady revenue source.

"It provides some financial sustainability for our fire services," said Arlington Fire Chief Dave Kraski.

"We're a department in the city and therefore we are subject to the fluctuations of their budget," he said.

One of the ways that can happen is decreases in sales tax revenue.

"When COVID-19 started, no one knew what to expect. In Arlington every department took a 10 percent cut," said Kraski.

Property tax values on the other hand tend to be more stable.

"When property tax revenue drops, it's usually from a much longer event like a recession, and not a sudden drop," he said.

Currently, residents pay for fire services through payments to the city's general fund and levies specifically for emergency and fire services.

Under an RFA, they would pay property taxes directly to the RFA instead.

Kraski said the city plans to reduce their property tax collections to offset the increase from the new RFA.

The average homeowner is projected to pay an additional $60 per year under the RFA.

There is a tax calculator at the city of Arlington's website that shows estimated property tax under both scenarios at arlingtonwa.gov/672.

Arlington officials hope to join with North County Fire and EMS to respond to increasing population as well.

"Our community is rapidly growing and we need to increase staffing at some point," said Kraski. "We likely need to add another life support vehicle sometime in the next 12 months."

Joining with another fire service organization can also provide efficiencies that large departments enjoy.

"There is an economy of scale, which provides for better service," said Paul Ellis, Arlington city administrator during the Nov. 2 City Council Meeting.

None of the staff or fire stations that are currently in Arlington are expected to be affected.

"Our fire chief, as well as all our staff, will transfer to the RFA and nobody would lose rank," said Ellis.

Emergency response times in Arlington must also not decrease as part of the agreement.

"The other part of the plan is that our service will be as good or better, so once we annex in the RFA can't say 'sorry Arlington, we're going to have a longer response time to your area,'" said Ellis.

Events such as the annual Santa Run and other community events are also expected to continue.

"Our goal is that the community doesn't realize that this happened," said Kraski.

The new RFA would be governed by a seven member board of directors.

"The structure of the governance will change once Arlington annexes in so that they have two seats directly in Arlington, as well as two at-large seats that could be filled from Arlington," said Ellis. "So the city of Arlington would continue to have representation."

RFAs are a popular model around the county and state to join local fire districts. The city of Marysville and Fire District 12 joined in an RFA in 2017 and the city of Lynnwood and Fire District 1 established an RFA in 2017.

"We are one of three cities left in the county that has a municipal fire department," said Ellis. Those cities are Everett, Mukilteo and Arlington.

Kraski said more public outreach will happen for anyone who has questions about the measure.

"The amount of information given to the public will increase as we reach Feb. 9," he said.

More information can be found at Arlington's RFA page at arlingtonwa.gov/672. In addition, city administrator Paul Ellis and Fire Chief Dave Kraski are available to answer questions at 360-403-4603 and 360-403-3607 respectively.

 

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