Firefighters, city prepare for the worst as they continue negotiations
Last updated 7/6/2017 at Noon
The union representing firefighters from District 7 has drawn a line in the sand in response to the perceived lack of progress in negotiations for a new contract with Mill Creek to provide fire protection and emergency medical services.
Fire commissioner Randy Fay presented a termination letter to the city council that laid the groundwork to terminate the contract with the city on Jan. 1, 2018 if the two sides cannot agree on a new contract.
“This was just a procedural motion that gives the district time to execute an exit strategy. We certainly hope this will not become necessary,” said Fay told The Beacon. Fay has served as spokesman for the firefighters during the extended negotiations that began in mid-2015.
The action was needed, said Fay, because negotiations for a new contract have reached a critical point.
“We do not want the public to be disappointed in the actions of firefighters,” said Fay. “We understand the city has some hard decisions to make to extend the relationship we’ve enjoyed since the city was incorporated in 1983.
“We want to continue the relationship. But we just have not made enough progress at this point to be comfortable that it’s going to get done.”
City spokesperson Joni Kirk said the city has acted accordingly in light of the notice issued by the firefighters during the public input portion of a city council meeting.
“The truth of the matter is that Fire District 7 put the city on notice of termination via letter at the council meeting on June 13,” said Kirk. “The city therefore is compelled to take action; not doing so would be irresponsible.”
Mayor Pam Pruitt responded to Fay’s public statements by saying the city’s fire contract negotiating team would try to reach a resolution at the negotiating table, but will bargain in public. She expressed confidence the teams on both sides of the negotiations.
The city has changed dramatically since the last contract was signed, said City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto. The city exercised its option to an automatic one-year renewal in December to continue negotiations on the contract that was set to expire at the end of 2016.
The stance by the firefighters became necessary, said Fay, when the council contracted with the Center for Public Safety Management for an in-depth needs analysis of fire and emergency services in Mill Creek. Polizzotto said the outcome of this study will help the city understand personnel and equipment needs for the coming years.
The fire commissioner said talks have been stalled over the question of how much the city should pay for fire protection and emergency medical services. The contract between the city and District 7 was amended in 2011 to increase staffing at Station 76 near Town Center.
The only fire station in the city was built in 1998. It is currently staffed with a minimum of five firefighters working around-the-clock, including at least five firefighters, including two paramedics, which equates to two-dozen full-time first responders. Their wages, benefits, equipment and overhead are budgeted to cost the city an estimated $4.2 million in 2017.
The district’s latest proposal calls for a firefighter with 10 years’ experience to earn approximately $136,038 in annual wages and benefits. The union is also asking for annual cost-of-living increases of 3 percent.
Mill Creek’s leaders are committed to public safety, but they can’t be “captive to unchecked cost increases,” said city spokeswoman Joni Kirk in a prepared press release. Kirk said the fire contract could represent for 40 percent of Mill Creek general fund spending by 2020.
The city’s entire general fund budget for the year is $12.3 million.
“Staff has worked hard to balance the budget and hopes to reach a resolution with the district,” Kirk said. “The city has also taken steps to ensure emergency coverage ‘through an alternate provider or in-house should the need arise’.”
The study by the Center for Public Safety Management calls for a comprehensive analysis of service demands, workload levels and response times at Fire Station 76. Kirk said the results may also be used to compare with industry benchmarks.
In addition, the study will be used to review the percentage of emergency medical service calls compared to fire response calls, based on the understanding that EMS represent a considerably higher volume of the calls within Mill Creek than other areas of District 7.
Anticipated outcomes from the study are expected to include recommendations for staffing levels, optimal deployment schedules and equipment. The study is expected to take about four months to complete.
“Public safety services are at the core of city government,” said Polizzotto. “Therefore, it is important to develop a long-term strategy and operational plan to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”
Options for the city are limited, said Fay. He said Mill Creek could contract with Fire District 1 (that serves Edmonds, Brier and Mountlake Terrace) or establish its own fire department, but stressed that it could take as long as two years to start a fire department for Mill Creek.
Interim Fire Chief Brad Reading told The Beacon that he had not been asked about providing fire protection for Mill Creek.
He added that the council’s decision to accelerate the purchase of the fire station from District 7 in December indicates the city is “seriously contemplating its options to provide emergency services with a different provider.”
The fire district claims that without a new contract, people within its boundaries would be subsidizing the cost of service in Mill Creek in 2018. Without the additional income, the district would have to consider layoffs and early retirements.
“We’re a public agency,” Fay said. “This isn’t a situation where we’re arguing profit margin.”