For nearly a decade, Spokane city leaders have called for expanded fire service in the southwest corner of town. This week, Spokane Mayor David Condon said his administration was making it a reality with the help of a $2 million federal grant, but solutions for funding a new fire station after the grant’s expiration remain unclear.
Condon announced Thursday the city will “provide full-time, round-the-clock coverage in the area surrounding Thorpe and Highway 195,” thanks to the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. The grant money will be used to hire and train 12 firefighters, six of whom will staff a temporary fire station in Latah Valley. Two more positions for the station will be funded from the fire department’s current budget, providing for a two-person-per-unit station that can respond to fires and medical emergencies.
When the grant money runs out, the city will need to fund the station or cut service.
“We are committed to sustainable funding for that effort,” City Administrator Theresa Sanders said. “We are committed to finding long-term funding through our budgeting processes to retain those firefighters and the permanent solution down in southwest Spokane.”
The location of a permanent station, which is expected to be in place by 2020, is unknown, but fire Chief Bobby Williams said it will be called Fire Station No. 5, taking its name from the long-shuttered station that was below Old City Hall, the current location of downtown’s Olive Garden. A temporary station will be operating by May and will serve up to 6,000 residents. Generally speaking, operating a fire station in Spokane costs about $1.2 million a year.
Residents in the Latah Valley currently are underserved by fire services, Williams said, with firefighter response times far worse than the city average, putting lives at risk and driving up home insurance rates.
According to the Fire Department, people in the Eagle Ridge development wait more than 12 minutes for emergency personnel to arrive after calling 911. Citywide, the department responds to 90 percent of calls within eight and a half minutes, the city’s stated goal. With the new station and its two-person crews, Williams said, response times could be cut in half.
Given the seriousness of such lagging response times, city leaders said finding a long-term funding source isn’t a choice, though Williams said he has not talked with the mayor’s team “about what we’re going to do two years from now.”
City Council members said they are committed to finding funding for a new station.
“This does create a prospect of future cost,” said Councilman Jon Snyder, chairman of the city’s Public Safety Committee. “But given the response times, no matter what, we have to add more resources.”
Snyder acknowledged that the southwest area’s population numbers may not justify the need for a new station, but he supported the addition of the station because of the area’s difficult topography.
“The current numbers may not,” he said. “But the geographic barriers are so intense. We’ve got the river. We’ve got the creek. We’ve got the bluff. We’ve got the freeway. It’s kind of a unique situation.”
Councilman Mike Allen agreed.
“If you live in the city, you should have some expectation that you have service equal to other parts of town,” he said.
The federal SAFER grant, Allen said, “gives us the bridge between that short-term solution and our long-term goals.”
Those goals include a permanent station and expanded fire service to the city’s new West Plains addition, annexed by the city in 2011. Consolidating the numerous fire services there – those of the Spokane International Airport, city of Spokane, Airway Heights and Fire District 10 – would help provide adequate funding for the area’s needs, Allen said.
Don Waller, president of the firefighter union Local 29, said his union supported the new station, even if it relied on two-person crews rather than the standard crews of three. The city and union have agreed to house three-person crews at the new station by 2020.
Waller said there is “always a worry” the city will attempt to cut positions in the fire department, and this situation is no different.
“We hope over the next few years we’ll be able to work with the mayor and the council to fund those positions,” he said. “We have three years to work on this. We need to be looking for solutions starting today.”
Councilman Mike Fagan also supported a new fire station but took aim at lucrative firefighter union contracts and the city’s West Plains annexation as siphons of public funds. Fagan blamed what he characterized as excessive firefighter compensation for the recent reduction in service in 2013 at Fire Station No. 9 on the South Hill. City leaders later restored that service cut.
Fagan also questioned the annexation, which led to a “mitigation agreement” between the city and Spokane County Fire District 10, and an annual $500,000 in payment to the fire district. Under a deal that the city and district, which served the land prior to annexation, signed in the 1990s, the city agreed to make annual payments “in perpetuity” to the district when it annexed its land to help cover the district’s lost tax revenue.
“We’re beginning to see the unintended consequences,” Fagan said.
The fire district’s chief, Nick Scharff, said the agreement was fair, noting the city annexed just 8 percent of the district’s land but took more than 35 percent of its revenue.
“They only took the revenue-generating area,” Scharff said. “We are a little more rural in nature than what we were, but we still serve 80 square miles. We didn’t shut down any stations or cut back on personnel.”
Allen called the deal an “annexation poison pill,” but held out hope for consolidated services on the West Plains.
“We need to add fire in that corridor,” he said.
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