Medical Lake has had its own fire department since 1904, but voters could decide next month to eliminate the department and transfer the city’s one fire station to Spokane County Fire District 3.
If a simple majority of voters in both Medical Lake and Fire District 3 approve ballot measure 1 on Aug. 6, Spokane County’s second-oldest fire department will become a thing of the past and Spokane County Fire District 3 will annex the city into its coverage area.
Local fire officials say the change will lead to needed improvements in Medical Lake’s fire district without eliminating the city’s station or opportunities for the city’s longtime all-volunteer crews.
Currently, more than 1 in 4 emergency calls in Medical Lake goes unanswered, according to a fact sheet provided by the city.
“It’s a trend that we’re seeing in the fire service,” Medical Lake Fire Chief Jason Mayfield said of consolidating departments. “Anything in public safety is hugely expensive to operate.”
The fire department in Medical Lake is all-volunteer. Medical Lake City Administrator Doug Ross said volunteerism is down “across the board nationwide,” making it difficult to staff the fire station.
“We know that there’s a problem with staffing out here,” Mayfield said. “We’ve always tried to manage it.”
In Mayfield’s six years as chief and 20 years as a firefighter, volunteer numbers at the station have ranged from 11 to 30 and there have always been missed calls, he said.
When it comes to missed calls, “zero is the goal,” Mayfield said. But he added that goal is not realistic the way the station is set up.
“We rely heavily on automatic and mutual aid in all of the West Plains,” Mayfield said.
“The bottom line is, we need to provide the best service we can for our residents and obviously missing 26% of our calls, we need to make some service improvements there,” Ross said.
Proponents of the measure say making those improvements requires handing over the Medical Lake Fire Station to Fire District 3.
“Essentially, we would take responsibility for all EMS and fire department services in the city of Medical Lake,” said Cody Rohrbach, Fire District 3 chief. “This would enhance services, so that they’re guaranteed a fire response.”
If the measure passes, the station would be renovated to meet code requirements for overnight staffing. Staff would be a mixture of career firefighters and volunteers, with no one currently volunteering at the department losing that opportunity, Rohrbach said.
“If it provides a better service to the community, then it’s not about me,” Mayfield said when asked what the transition would mean for his job.
“We would merge both departments,” Rohrbach said. “This would eliminate some of the redundancies that currently exist at the fire chief and administrative levels.”
It would also create a larger volunteer pool for District 3. With more than 145 volunteers already in the system, Medical Lake’s 23 volunteers would be able to work shifts at all district stations.
The compensation for volunteers also would increase. In Medical Lake, volunteers make $1 per hour on shift and $10 an hour while on a call. District 3 volunteers make $13 an hour across the board.
“It’s a significant bump in pay,” Mayfield said.
Annexation is not the first option that the city of Medical Lake has looked at to address the large volume of missed calls, Mayfield said.
In 2014, it considered creating a regional fire authority. Area officials also looked into creating a West Plains consolidated system to reduce the duplication in services across fire departments, Mayfield said.
Crews from Airway Heights, Four Lakes, Medical Lake, Cheney and county fire districts 3 and 10 frequently provide mutual aid to each other, Mayfield said.
“We’ve always had a relationship with District 3,” Mayfield said. “None of us can do it alone.”
Firefighters in the West Plains have a weekly breakfast that rotates among stations. Those gatherings are the often filled with conversations about providing better service to their communities, Mayfield said.
Area firefighters also train together and respond together, Mayfield said.
If annexation passes, property taxes in Medical Lake would rise by 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
“The folks that would see a tax change related to Medical Lake are the current residents of Medical Lake, that’s it,” Rohrbach said.
The tax increase would come from Medical Lake forgoing its 50 cent emergency medical services levy and adding the $1.50 proposed Fire District 3 levy.
The difference, when state levy caps are taken into account, is 74 cents.
Insurance rates may decrease as a result of service changes, Mayfield said. On the scale that insurance evaluators use, ranking cities on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best and 10 the worst, Medical Lake is a class six city, he said.
The city was just shy of class five when it was evaluated last year, due to the number of missed calls and lack of a ladder truck. Both problems would be solved by the merger, Mayfield said.
Fire District 3 is asking for a levy increase of its own in a separate ballot measure. Over the last 2 1/2 years, as a result of changes in population and property values, the value of the district’s existing levy eroded from from $1.50 to $1.41.
In the past, the district has asked voters to restore levy funds when erosion brought the rate close to $1.40, Rohrbach said.
“What we’re trying to do is restore that 9 cent decrease,” Rohrbach said, citing the 25% increase in calls as an important factor.
The levy change needs a simple majority to pass.
Members of the Medical Lake City Council and Mayor Shirley Maike declined to discuss their opinions of the ballot measure.
“Elected officials are not allowed by law to give an opinion,” Maike said in an email.
She explained that this policy is based on the legal advice of Medical Lake City Prosecutor Cynthia McMullen.
“They were following my advice that we’re going to stick to the facts like the Public Disclosure Commission requires,” McMullen said.
However, a Public Disclosure Commission legal interpretation states that “a statement by an elected official in support of or in opposition to any ballot proposition at an open press conference or in response to a specific inquiry” is allowed.
Heather Starr, who is running unopposed for the Medical Lake City Council, said she supports the proposal.
If voters in Fire District 3 and Medical Lake approve the change, the transition will happen as soon as the election is certified.
“The plan is to have all the paperwork done ahead of time,” Mayfield said.
Fire District 3 already has started drafting renovation plans for the fire station in hopes of getting it up and running as soon as possible.
Medical Lake has drafted an interlocal agreement to pay District 3 for its services until levy changes would take effect in 2021.