The Lake Stevens community voted to pass a Lake Stevens Fire District levy back in 2006 after polls indicated what citizens wanted from their fire district and what they expected to happen if they agreed to the levy.
The four main points of the levy included ensuring community safety, improving work space, restoring training and maintaining current response times.
The public survey actually indicated that 63 percent of those polled strongly supported increasing the fire district’s levy rate to maintain staffing at a level sufficient to respond to calls through the 2010 levy period.
Currently, response times have been sustained which has kept the community safe, critical personnel such as a Fire Marshal and Training Officer have been added along with one firefighter per shift per year since 2006, the fire station on Chapel Hill Road has been remodeled providing added workspace and the district is currently in the process of acquiring a new training facility and administration building.
Lake Stevens Fire Chief Gary Faucett feels that he is implementing the promises made in the levy the community voted for, however, Lake Stevens firefighters and their union, feel that levy money should be used to hire additional firefighters.
This is where your elected Fire Commissioners come in. Commissioner Troy Elmore, Dan Lorentzen and Vern Foster will have to make the tough decisions. It doesn’t help that the economy has taken a turn for the worse and currently, no one can predict what the future holds.
At a commission meeting held on Tuesday, June 9, Chief Faucett presented the commissioners and audience with his ideas and opinions regarding the levy money and how it should be spent.
“We are working with our firefighters to help them understand that Lake Stevens Fire does not live in a glass bubble and the recession has hit us as hard as everyone. A significant portion of our district was annexed into the city of Marysville and subsequently those taxpayers took their tax dollars with them,” Faucett said. “This allowed Marysville to build and staff a new fire station in the Soper Hill area, just outside our northwestern boundary. Sensitive to our situation, the Marysville Fire Chief has authorized his firefighters to assist Lake Stevens firefighters whenever they need help anywhere in our district. So in virtual terms, Lake Stevens firefighters have seen an increase in its firefighting force, they may just be wearing a different uniform patch. The recession has also significantly affected our new construction and existing assessed valuation taxes revenue.”
Lake Stevens City Councilmember Heather Coleman brought in current housing statistics that show that assessed home values have gone down in Lake Stevens.
Coleman explained that housing values went down by 11.6 percent. She is concerned that if the District decided to add more firefighters in this economy there may not be revenue to support them in the future.
“If the revenue stream isn’t consistent, that could lead to trouble,” she said. “I would try to hang on to existing staff right now.”
Others share Coleman’s concerns.
“Personally, I do not think we have seen the worst, yet. But, even if we have reached the bottom of this downturn, the length of time it will take to recover is still unknown. That is why I lean toward a conservative approach to financial decisions right now,” Commissioner Foster said.
Faucett is concerned that if the District hires three or more new firefighters, he may have to lay them off in the near future. He was also concerned that currently employed firefighters may lose their jobs.
Faucett wants to guarantee the citizens that their vote was taken seriously and that the Fire District is doing exactly what they promised to do with the levy money.
“We are working with our firefighters to help them to understand that we’re doing all we can just to keep our current firefighters employed, much less increase staffing. Increasing staffing in the middle of a recession is simply unacceptable to this Fire Chief, especially when statistics show such an increase in staffing will not help us respond to the citizens’ emergency any quicker than we already do,” Faucett said. “As the community’s Fire Chief, I want to assure the taxpayers, that thanks to their financial support, our firefighters are providing the training and tools necessary to help them perform their jobs safely. They are required to adhere to strict safety laws and departmental policies when performing emergency duties.”
Maintaining existing response times has and always will be a top priority within the District.
“We do know that adding three more firefighters will not change response time. Anytime we’re dispatched to a labor-intensive call, the more bodies the safer they are. At this point we are needing to maintain what we have,” Commissioner Elmore said. “Our number one priority is that we want to make sure we can maintain the staffing levels we currently offer. We need to make sure we meet the obligations to the citizens of the levy and if we do hire new employees there is enough financial stability to keep them employed. If there is a decrease in revenue over the next few years we need to make sure we can maintain them.”
Faucett makes it clear that he would like to hire firefighters when the District can afford to keep them for the next 30 years.
“I am not saying that I do not want to hire more firefighters,” he said. “I want to delay it until the economy recovers.”
During the public meeting on Tuesday, concerns were brought up by firefighters and local community members.
“I think that hiring three people is absolutely necessary,” Firefighter Lisa Defenbaugh said.
“If we don’t know, we should be holding onto that money,” Firefighter Pat Cook said. “We’ve clearly shown that not hiring three firefighters is not going to increase or decrease safety,”
“As far as my personal experience it gives me a good understanding of what the firefighter needs,” Commissioner Elmore, a Mukiliteo Firefighter said. “There are few organizations in the country that can say they have all the staff they need, having a few extra bodies certainly can make a difference. However, I have seen no decline in response or safety. The goal is to maintain what we have.’
The debate will continue until a decision is made in the near future. However for now, Chief Faucett, all of the commissioners and the firefighters want to assure the public that they are the top priority and that safety is job one.
“Our firefighters and staff have done a great job at sustaining response times and providing for the public needs,” Commissioner Lorentzen said. “We provide the best equipment we can afford and will always work to meet the needs for a safer work environment. If safety in this means providing the necessary personnel to accomplish this, then it’s a commitment I believe we need to fulfill and I fully support. We made a promise to the public to provide a level of service when they supported the levy.”
“The decision to hire three more firefighters right away, or delay the hiring, is not being taken lightly. The commission expects to receive a recommendation from the chief and will weigh the issue carefully before the final decision is made,” Foster said.
Faucett makes it clear that he understands the wants of the firefighters but cannot find any data that indicates the need of more firefighters at this time.
“The public voted to maintain response times, not increase staffing. They did not vote for us to use our funds based on our ideology, emotion or a staffing plan, they voted to hire firefighters as we needed them to maintain response times,” Faucett said.
Union President Ron Rasmussen was contacted but had not responded when the Journal went to press.