East Pierce Fire and Rescue’s first ever general obligation bond measure will officially be on the November general election ballot.
The fire department’s board of commissioners voted unanimously to approve the 20-year, $80 million bond ballot measure during the July 17 meeting, as well as the Capital Facilities Plan the bond will fund.
If approved by a supermajority of East Pierce district residents, taxpayers would pay roughly $0.25 per every $1,000 in assessed property value, or around $8.33 a month (or $100 a year) for those with a $400,000 home, according to Fire Chief Bud Backer.
“There’s actually a chance, a very good chance, it’s going to be less,” Backer told fire commissioners at the meeting. “But we’ve tried to do the estimate so that whatever the rate is, that rate stays fairly level throughout the 20 year plan, rather than starting much lower and letting the additional population add to it down the road.”
The Capital Facilities Plan the bond is funding lays out East Pierce’s infrastructure needs, and was went over in detail during a meeting in June.
Backer went around to Milton, Edgewood, Sumner, Bonney Lake, and other communities the fire department covers to explain those needs to various city councils over the last few months.
During his presentation to the Bonney Lake City Council on July 10, Backer said one of the biggest issues East Pierce faces is increased call volume, which affects everything down the line from aging and obsolete buildings to massive wear and tear on vehicles and inadequate staffing.
“Since 2012 when Milton came on board — we have not grown size-wise since then, as far as geographically — in that time frame through 2017, we’ve seen an 83 percent increase in call volume without any additional resources,” Backer told Bonney Lake council members.
According to Backer, the Bonney Lake Station 111 (East Pierce’s HQ) responds to roughly 20 percent of all calls made to East Pierce, and Sumner Station 113 about 24 percent.
But “the Edgewood station is actually creeping up on us, because that also handles Milton as a first-in, so in combining those, they’re almost as busy as Bonney Lake. Everybody is running hard,” Backer said. “We are struggling to maintain our response times. That is due to the increasing call volume… we’re having more and more calls being answered by second- or third-due units, which increases response times.”
In fact, a medical unit from Graham recently had to respond to an emergency in Sumner “because we had more calls than six stations could do,” Backer continued. “When six stations have eight calls all at the same time, the wheels start coming off.”
But it’s not a matter of just hiring new firefighters to increase staffing levels, though that is part of the overall plan.
First, East Pierce’s fire stations need to be upgraded to house more staff and more vehicles.
According to the Capital Facilities Plan, approximately $71.5 million will go toward building new stations, some of which are replacements for old stations.
Station 111 will be replaced because the city of Bonney Lake is no longer interested in leasing the building out to East Pierce. The new station is planned to be built on the northwest corner of Main Street East and Veterans Memorial Drive, across the street from Thain Thai. East Pierce bought that land in 2012, according to Backer.
Stations 112 in Prairie Ridge, 114 in Lake Tapps, and 118 in Edgewood will also be replaced due to the age of the buildings — the Edgewood station was built in 1948, and the others built in the 1970s.
Additionally, a new Station 117 for the Tehaleh area will be built on the corner of Cascadia Boulevard and 181st Avenue East, land which East Pierce already owns.
The remaining $8.5 million, Backer said, will go toward tuning up or replacing EMS and firefighter vehicles.
“The medic units have just been re-chassis. They look bright and shiny today, but by the time we’re done with the first phase of this project building, they’ll need to be replaced,” Backer said during a June 19 commissioners meeting, adding that these EMS vehicles have a five-year lifespan due to the high amount of miles they drive.
Backer admitted it may be difficult selling a bond measure to voters, especially because tax payers are already paying extra property taxes for ST3 and will also be voting on raising the Pierce County Library System levy during the same election the bond measure goes to voters. But by the time ballots go out, he believes taxpayers will make the right choice.
“Unlike other capital projects in this area, you’ll see results of this in just a few short years, as opposed to 20 or 30 years down the road,” Backer told the Bonney Lake Council. “As one citizen advisory person put it, ‘I’ll probably never ride that train, but I’ll be looking up into the eyes of a paramedic one of these days.’”
Stations 113 in Sumner, 115 in East Lake Tapps, 116 in the Foothills area, and 124 in Milton may receive upgrades in the future, but those projects are not a part of this obligation bond.
OTHER EPFR UPDATES
Not all East Pierce news is about bonds and elections, and Backer was happy to tell local cities some of the smaller achievements the department has made since he last gave an update.
Two new staffers have already started to make a difference, both in the department and in the community.
“We’ve added a mechanic to our staff so that we can reduce our reliance on contract maintenance shop and reduce our cost,” Backer said. “If nothing else, it’s going to reduce our downtime on vehicles because we can get that turned around quicker.”
East Pierce has also added a community medic.
“That person will work with users of our system that are driving up our EMS call volume and get them in touch and lined up with the proper social services, so hopefully they can reduce their reliance on 911,” Backer continued, making special note of assisted living facilities in the district and their reliance on emergency services for non-emergencies.
According to East Pierce’s 2016 Annual Report, 911 responses to senior housing facilities has increased 42 percent between 2014 and 2016.
Speaking of non-emergencies, the department is also researching a “false alarm” policy that could charge callers when resources are spent on non-emergencies, in order to recover costs.
Additionally, the department hired nine firefighters in January 2018, thanks to a SAFER grant, and those firefighters will officially be a part of staffing levels by January 2019.
By 2020, Backer plans to add a roving medic unit that will move around the district depending on what calls are coming from which cities; by 2021, he hopes to have all companies up to three firefighters per engine.
Bringing on all these new career firefighters, however, may mean another levy lid lift is in the near future, Backer added.