Arlington voters will decide in February whether the city fire department leaves the city to become part of the North County Regional Fire Authority.
Ballots have been mailed for the Feb. 9 Special Election and will likely arrive soon for most voters.
If approved, the measure would annex the Arlington Fire Department into the North County Regional Fire Authority, which currently covers Stanwood and some of the rural areas to the north and west of Arlington.
Currently, funding for the Arlington Fire Department comes from the city of Arlington, however city staff have been looking at alternative funding sources in recent years.
“In a fire district we’re heavily reliant on property tax that is fairly stable. In a city environment you’re reliant equally on a sales tax, so when the economy fluxes the city has to react a lot quicker,” said John Cermak, fire chief of North County Fire and EMS. “It gives the fire service a more stable funding service to maintain its level of service."
Only Everett, Mukilteo and Arlington still operate a fire department through their city.
“If you look at 24 cities and towns in Snohomish County, we’re one of the last to do this,” said Dave Kraski, Arlington’s fire chief.
The city has been looking since 2017 for new models to provide fire services, and started with discussions with the city of Marysville.
At the time, Marysville officials were looking to form a Regional Fire Authority (RFA), which is a separately governed government organization that can levy taxes and provides fire services.
However, Arlington officials ended up not agreeing with Marysville.
“Really, it was just based on governance. We really wouldn’t have had much of a voice in the government [of the RFA],” said Kraski.
After those discussions ended, Arlington staff began talking with North County Fire and EMS about a possible merger.
“We have a lot of things in common,” said Kraski, as the two organizations already share part-time employees and staff such as a fire marshal and community resource paramedic.
Last year the two organizations finalized a plan.
“We think it’s a good fit and have a proposal on Feb. 9 to annex the Arlington Fire Department into the North County Fire and EMS,” said Kraski.
The funding of the current Arlington Fire Department comes from the city’s general fund, which also has to fund the city’s parks, police and public facilities.
As the demand for fire services increases it is taking up more of that general fund, said Kraski.
Over the years the city has also added an Ambulance Utility Fee and a levy that help fund the department.
Those taxes and fees would be terminated if the annexation is approved, however residents would have new taxes to pay.
“The citizens would no longer pay a levy to the city but they would pay directly to the RFA,” said Paul Ellis, Arlington’s city administrator.
Ellis said the Arlington City Council is prepared to reduce the city’s property tax collections, as well, to offset the increase.
“The City Council has voted to reduce the general fund levy rate to offset some of the cost,” he said.
A calculator to see property tax with and without annexation is available at www.arlingtonwa.gov/672.
For a property valued at $350,000 the cost is expected to be $900 with an annexation and $917 without.
“About 54 percent of the residents would see their property remain the same or decrease,” said Ellis.
He said 28 percent would see a small increase and 18 percent would see a larger increase.
“The houses that are at the top end [of value] have the most impact. Those will see the biggest increase,” said Ellis.
As part of the agreement, service times to Arlington are not supposed to get worse.
“My hope through this whole thing is that if the proposal passes here in a few weeks that the community notices no changes,” said Kraski.
There is not supposed to be a reduction in services or staffing, he said.
“In time we will see increases in efficiency,” he said.
In 2018 the city of Stanwood annexed into the RFA.
“Immediately we were able to go out and upgrade the fire equipment,” said Cermak. The RFA bought a new fire engine that serves specifically Stanwood.
“We also hired a fire marshal that could really focus on community risk reduction, injury and illness on the long term,” he said.
Arlington officials hope to see some of the same benefits of having a large fire services organization if they annex into the North County Regional Fire Authority.
“The largest benefit that the communities will see is that economy of scale,” said Ellis. “Currently the way we’re doing the cost of providing the services doesn't do anything but go up every year. We’re just too small to absorb those costs,."
Cermak said one of the biggest impacts of Stanwood opting in as well was long-term planning. Instead of relying on inter-local agreements that could be terminated, the RFA had the ability to proactively organize it’s future.
Ballots are due Feb. 9 for the measure. Snohomish County drop boxes are available at the Arlington Library and the Smokey Point Lowe’s parking lot.