A deal between Vashon Island Fire & Rescue and the Vashon Park District for contracted fire protection services seems closer than ever following more than a year-long back-and-forth that has delayed an agreement between the two districts.
Washington state law says that any municipal organization within the confines of, or adjacent to, a fire district must contract for fire protection services. But the predecessors of Chief Charlie Krimmert, who took the helm of the fire district in 2017, had not made such interlocal agreements with several districts, including the park district, for years.
That prompted Krimmert to begin the process of contracting with the island’s various boards, but negotiations with the park district stalled after a number was proposed that commissioners believed was unreasonably high.
Elaine Ott-Rocheford, executive director of the park district, said in a recent interview with The Beachcomber that Krimmert first informed her of their need for a mutual agreement in August of 2017, though it took until the following April before she saw the first draft of a contract.
“What they were very clear about was wanting to negotiate what was fair value,” she said.
Originally, the fire district floated an annual cost of $11,500 for its services to the park district, which owns 525 acres of land. That figure was based on Krimmert’s evaluation of park district properties at $1 per $1,000 of market value, below the fire district’s previous levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. At the time, Krimmert said he also took into account the average number of calls per year where fire services are dispatched to park district locations, which he had estimated at eight. But in later meetings, park district commissioners unilaterally agreed that the $11,500 figure was too costly.
That left both districts at odds and looking for more unorthodox solutions allowed by the law to come to an agreement. Park district commissioners considered options that would make for a like-value exchange, including selling land at the Mileta Creek Preserve to the fire district in order to build a future station. But that property is protected under conservation in partnership with The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust.
Park district commissioners next considered providing landscaping services for fire district properties, but the board backtracked after it was determined that the value of the labor the park district would provide exceeded the $11,500 figure first proposed.
“I always appreciated that we were looking for alternatives that weren’t necessarily monetary,” said Ott-Rocheford.
Other districts have contracted with the fire department by providing services for trade. In one example, the Vashon Cemetery District dedicated a parcel of land where the fire district may one day build a statue dedicated to fallen firefighters. The fire district contracts for services with the Vashon Municipal Airport, which in turn reserves a helicopter landing pad for the department, though in an interview with The Beachcomber, Krimmert said that agreement was in place before he started as chief. Contracts for services with the Vashon School District and Washington State Ferries are set by state law.
“It’s a law that’s been ignored for 40 years. If you ignore something for 40 years it doesn’t surprise [me] that it’s going to take three years to come to a conclusion,” said Krimmert.
As negotiations occurred at a snail’s pace over the months since they began, Ott-Rocheford said the park district looked to King County for its interpretation of the law as a guiding example, as it must also contract for fire services. The county’s legal department, she learned, believes the law governing fire services only applies to properties with existing structures built on them.
That’s where the park district’s board went next, modeling the latest draft of a proposed agreement with the fire district after the county’s boilerplate contract for fire services. Commissioners took the district’s 2019 assessed building values for properties such as Ober Park and Paradise Ridge and multiplied them by the fire district’s tax rate of $1.43 per $1,000 of assessed value to come up with an annual fee of $4,147.72 for fire services, pending a final agreement with the fire district.
“We always want to comply with the law. The pressure was kind of ours to find a way to be in compliance in a way that both our parties were happy with,” said Ott-Rocheford.
For his part, Krimmert said that he hopes to have an agreement in place by year’s end.
“Their position and the county’s position is not a position I am in agreement with. I think a forest can burn as much as a house can burn,” he said. “But because I am not in agreement with it does not mean we will not be moving forward.”