Wilkeson residents pay more money for fewer services after withdrawal from East Pierce fire district

Wilkeson’s recent withdrawal from East Pierce Fire & Rescue will save the fire district money but create more costs for town residents who need emergency transportation.

The Mount Rainier foothills town of nearly 500 people now contracts with Buckley and Carbonado fire departments, two agencies that don’t provide emergency transport services. That means residents who need a ride to a hospital will be on the hook for an ambulance bill ranging from about $700 to $1,000.

And despite the change in service, residents will still pay a higher tax rate – approved last year – that was meant to equalize the share of tax revenue that Wilkeson pays to East Pierce compared to other communities.

East Pierce Fire Chief Jerry Thorson said this week that Wilkeson’s reasons for ending the eight-year partnership were unexpected. He said the town’s concerns didn’t come up during contract-renewal discussions.

“We were completely surprised to get the email from their attorney” about the withdrawal, Thorson told The News Tribune. He added that the issues would’ve been easy to resolve “had they come up during negotiations.”

Wilkeson Mayor Robert Walker said the primary sticking point was maintaining a substantial volunteer program.

“We felt that we had better opportunity to build up our volunteer program more with Buckley,” Walker said, adding that it was clear there wasn’t room for further negotiation. “We felt like we were being hurried to make our decision.”

The Wilkeson Town Council initially agreed to renew a contract with East Pierce on May 12. Two weeks later, the town’s attorney told the fire district that the Town Council had instead decided to go with Buckley Fire Department.

Eventually, Wilkeson also contracted for additional services with Carbonado Fire Department.

Walker said a council member, who was absent during the favorable vote for contract renewal May 12, was present before the final vote and introduced new ideas on the issue. The new information changed council members’ minds, the mayor said.

The Buckley and Carbonado fire departments don’t offer emergency medical transport, so Wilkeson residents will have to rely on private ambulance services. Buckley-based American Medical Response will provide emergency transport in Wilkeson; East Pierce Fire will respond to calls when AMR is unavailable.

East Pierce Fire provides free ambulance services to taxpayers within district boundaries, but Wilkeson residents will now be billed for any transport provided to them by the fire district.

The ambulance costs were a primary concern of the council, Walker said, but the privately contracted services are out of the town’s hands.

“We are still trying to brainstorm a little bit on what Wilkeson can do,” he said. “As of right now, that’s the way it will have to be.”

The withdrawal, which was effective June 18, comes after Wilkeson voters agreed to increase their taxes last year.

Walker said approval of two ballot measures – an EMS levy and a fire maintenance and operations levy – bumped up the total amount levied for fire district services to $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which East Pierce Fire residents outside Wilkeson were already paying. (He said he didn’t know the tax rate that residents previously paid.)

Thorson said Wilkeson residents were originally paying less than other fire district residents because of a contract that pre-dated the town’s partnership with East Pierce. The town was part of Buckley Fire District 12 before it was absorbed – along with the original contract – into the East Pierce boundaries in 2006.

Walker said the six-year levy funds will likely subsidize the contracts with Buckley and Carbonado fire departments, which cost a total of about $25,000.

Despite equalizing the tax rate, Thorson said East Pierce was still losing money on its partnership with Wilkeson.

He said the fire district paid to use Wilkeson’s fire station, another stipulation in the old District 12 contract. Total costs for rent and maintenance of the station exceeded the annual revenue collected from Wilkeson taxpayers, Thorson said.

Losing Wilkeson, he said, “improves our (financial) situation because we aren’t subsidizing a town.”

The town was never formally annexed into East Pierce Fire, and there were no plans to do so. Thorson said that would have been the preferred approach.

East Pierce Fire & Rescue covers about 152 square miles from Milton to Mount Rainier and has a $23 million annual budget.

Walker stressed that Wilkeson’s decision to withdraw from district boundaries had nothing to do with East Pierce’s quality of service.

“I don’t think anyone’s been upset with service that they’ve provided to the town,” he said.