The Town of Eatonville has outsourced its fire chief duties for the rest of the year to save money and maintain service levels in the Mount Rainier foothills community.
The temporary change allows officials to try the new system and evaluate the pros and cons before possibly jumping into a long-term commitment with South Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Town and fire district officials say a full merger is not out of the question, and that a money measure on the Nov. 4 ballot will be pivotal.
South Pierce Fire Chief Bob Vellias will continue to lead the fire district full time at a salary of $9,343 a month. Eatonville will pay $2,000 a month to the fire district, which will go into the general fund.
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Vellias replaces Bob Hudspeth who led the department for two years before Mayor Mike Schaub released him last month to save money; Hudspeth made about $92,000 a year and would have made about $95,000 in 2015.
The move comes at a time when every penny in Eatonville’s operating budget is under scrutiny. Schaub said the contract, if extended beyond this year, would save the town about $75,000 in 2015.
Eatonville spends about 60 percent of its general fund on police and fire services. In a town of about 2,700 residents with property values still recovering from the recession, maintaining service levels has been difficult, Schaub said.
He said bringing Vellias on board also means “bringing in a level of expertise” to Eatonville’s fire department.
“They know how to run a fire department,” he said of South Pierce Fire & Rescue.
South Pierce Fire has seven stations — two primary and five volunteer stations — and 23 full-time firefighters serving more than 18,000 residents over 138 square miles. It is the second-largest fire district, in terms of land mass, in the county.
Vellias sees the agreement as a mutually beneficial partnership. He said it’s important that South Pierce remain closely tied to the town, which is a key operations center in the mostly rural part of the county. Few emergency responders cover the sprawling area.
“They have a very, very good program to keep a medic unit on duty 24-7,” he said. “My number one priority is to make sure that continues.”
Eatonville began looking at the contracted position because of an expiring public safety grant, which will leave a hole of about $270,000 in next year’s town budget.
To fill the gap, town officials have placed an excess property tax levy on the Nov. 4 ballot. If approved, residents would pay an extra $2 per $1,000 in assessed property value — for a total estimated rate of $5.60 per $1,000 — generating an additional $342,876 in revenue next year.
If the levy doesn’t pass, Schaub said the town will have to adjust. The council has discussed options including contracting with South Pierce for advanced life support services and reverting back to a volunteer station, or considering joining the fire district, he said.
“We have some very difficult discussions and decisions if the levy fails,” Schaub said.
The excess levy likely could be an annual request, Schaub added, if the town can’t find ways to reduce costs; contracting a part-time chief is the first attempt to do so.
“We’re needing to find a different model,” he said, “and what exactly that will look like is still up in the air.”
Vellias’ duties in Eatonville will include working from town every Monday, attending all Town Council meetings and trainings, responding to major emergency incidents and — if the contract continues — drafting an annual budget.
Vellias acknowledged that it’s been somewhat challenging adding part-time chief duties to his already busy full-time gig with South Pierce. He added that the fire district receives fewer calls toward the end of the year, which has allowed him to “acclimate” to the change in pace.
Plus, he said, South Pierce’s headquarters station isn’t far from town if he’s needed.
“I’m accessible,” Vellias said. “I’m only 8 miles away.”
In an era of consolidated fire services, it’s not unusual for administrative changes like this to lead to full fire department mergers. And Vellias has worn two hats before. He previously worked as chief of both Fire Districts 15 and 17; then, in 2008, rural voters took the next step by folding Roy-based District 17 into South Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Both Schaub and Vellias said there’s no talk about further contracts in Eatonville or a potential merger, but they said nothing is off the table.
“I think it’s important to have those conversations,” Schaub said. “I think it would benefit both as long as we can keep the service coming out of Eatonville. It’s an area we want to explore, but we don’t want to rush into it.”