Milton is on track to become the latest city to join the growing East Pierce Fire & Rescue by annexation.
The City Council recently signed off on an ordinance stating the city’s intent to join and authorizing the mayor to sign an agreement outlining how the relationship with East Pierce would work.
The sprawling fire district, which has tripled in territory since it formed in 2000, already operates in Milton; it’s had a contract to provide fire and medical aid in the city for roughly two years.
The merging “takes away a level of bureaucracy,” said East Pierce Chief Jerry Thorson. “It allows the city to focus on its other responsibilities and we’ll focus on fire and EMS.”
The fire district’s commissioners are scheduled to consider the city’s request to join and the 12-page agreement at a meeting Tuesday.
The agreement covers everything from fire hydrant inspections to equipment, including one issue that became a point of contention in negotiations: staffing.
The city for years had an active volunteer lineup and wanted to preserve that, as well as ensure quick responses to emergency calls, city officials said.
The pact doesn’t guarantee a certain staffing level at the city’s fire station on Laurel Street, but the district pledges to provide enough staff to meet certain response time goals. It also says it will make the station the “first staffing priority” for overnight, volunteer firefighters known as “sleepers.”
The district has about 115 firefighters and officers, and roughly 45 volunteers. Milton’s station isn’t staffed with career firefighters, but up to three volunteers are there evenings and weekends, depending on availability, East Pierce officials said.
Thorson said response times in Milton are good, pointing out that a station in Edgewood – which is staffed by career firefighters at all times – is closer to some parts of Milton than the city’s own fire station.
“We’ll continue providing the same great service to the city” upon annexation, Thorson said.
Mayor Debra Perry said reaching the agreement was a long process, but “good work has been done on both sides.” She said annexation is the right move for the city.
Providing a fire department with advanced medical capabilities is a hefty expense for a community the size of Milton, with a population of about 6,900. It’s a service that other local cities, including Puyallup and Sumner, already have outsourced.
Puyallup joined Central Pierce Fire & Rescue about three years ago. Sumner voters approved joining East Pierce Fire & Rescue in 2008.
If East Pierce commissioners approve Milton’s prospective annexation, the proposal will go to the boundary review boards of Pierce and King counties. (Milton straddles the two counties.)
The annexation could then appear on the April ballot, requiring support from voters in both Milton and the fire district to go forward. If the annexation makes the April ballot and wins approval, it essentially would become effective in January 2014.
Fire district residents this year pay a total of $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value for fire and EMS service, the same rate Milton residents pay. For the next two years, fire district taxpayers also will shell out extra – an estimated 38 cents per $1,000 in 2013 and 43 cents per $1,000 in 2014 – to help make up for revenue lost in recent years as property values have plummeted. That extra revenue will come from a levy that East Pierce voters approved in the August election.
The fire district covers roughly 152 square miles, including the communities of Bonney Lake, Sumner, Edgewood, South Prairie and Wilkeson. Its operating budget this year totals about $22 million.
Milton’s contract with the district has been in effect since January 2011. The city has been shedding some traditional municipal functions in recent years. Along with fire and medical aid, the city outsources some other services, including planning.
And in the midst of another lean budget cycle, city leaders are discussing whether to do the same with their municipal court. Milton leaders are working to set a city budget for 2013.Sara Schilling: 253-552-7058