Regional Fire Authority (RFA)

North County Regional Fire Authority (NCRFA) and Arlington Fire Department 
Consider Annexation

Why Consider Annexation?

June, 2020
Arlington and North County Regional Fire Authority (NCRFA) are now engaged in working through the details of how Arlington could, if approved by City voters, annex into NCRFA.

Contact

Email: 
RFAquestion@arlingtonwa.gov

North County Fire email: 
jcernak@northcountyfireems.com

North County Fire EMS website

Two neighboring agencies with a strong partnership

Today, the City of Arlington Fire Department and North County Regional Fire Authority (NCRFA) serve a combined area of over 120 square miles and nearly 45,000 residents across north Snohomish County.  The agencies have very different service areas. Arlington is about 10 square miles of urban area, and also provides emergency medical services (EMS) and some fire services by contract to several rural communities to the east, south and west.  The vast majority of NCRFA’s service territory is suburban and rural, with the exception being the City of Stanwood which voted to annex into the NCRFA in 2017. 

Although very different in acreage and development patterns, Arlington Fire and NCRFA have a lot in common.  Both agencies are relatively small, have similar staffing levels and serve a comparable number of residents.  Both agencies have full time employees, part time employees, and volunteers.  Both agencies respond to calls in one another’s territory on an almost daily basis, under mutual aid agreements.  Both agencies respond to fire incidents in urban areas and rural communities.  The agencies currently share three specialized staff positions that allow them to operate joint programs which neither agency could afford on its own, including a Community Resource Paramedic, Medical Services Administrator, and Community Risk Reduction officer. The two agencies also have integrated their training programs.  The partnership between the City of Arlington and NCRFA is strong.

 The main goals of discussions:

  • To ensure more stable funding for fire and EMS services for Arlington residents
  • To ensure service levels to Arlington residents remain strong or improve
  • To facilitate efficiencies and economies of scale
  • To ensure a smooth and equitable transfer of City employees, equipment and facilities to NCRFA.
  • To ensure Arlington residents have a say in how the expanded NCRFA is governed.
  • To give Arlington voters a choice in how their fire and EMS service is funded

       Read about goals below.

Funding Pressure on all City services continues to drive the search for new ways to fund Fire and EMS

Like many other fire and EMS agencies in our region, Arlington and NCRFA are looking at ways to stabilize funding and become more efficient as the population they serve continues to grow.  The challenge of maintaining funding for City services which rely on the City’s General Fund – fire, police, roads, parks, courts, jail services and city administration -- has become even more problematic with the COVID-19 pandemic cutting heavily into City revenues.  The City expects a 20% drop in general fund revenues in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.  Across the board cuts will be needed to balance the City’s 2020 budget.  The picture continues to deteriorate looking forward to the 2021-22 biennial budget.  In the next two years, all City services will be under intense pressure to absorb cutbacks in order for the City to be able to balance its budget as required by state law. 

The City has taken several steps to preserve Fire and EMS service levels in recent years, through a combination of leaving senior positions vacant and sharing some staffing costs with the NCRFA as noted above. The City has also enacted an Ambulance Utility Fee which enabled the City to avoid staffing and service reductions in EMS and provided financial stability to the Fire Department budget.

The goal:  a more stable, voter approved funding option that ensures Arlington’s needs continue to be met

Arlington’s General Fund is supported by a combination of tax sources—property tax, sales tax, utility taxes, fees for service, and transfers from other City departments to support central administrative services received.  Sales tax alone accounts for 28% of Arlington’s General Fund Revenue.  In good economic times having multiple revenue sources can fund new programs, but in bad economic times, reliance on sales taxes causes cutbacks.

The goal of stabilizing funding for Fire and EMS has led the City to consider alternate funding structures.  In Washington, there are three common models for delivering fire service: (1) as part of City government; (2) as part of a special purpose district dedicated to providing fire and EMS, or (3) contracting for service from another agency.

There are two types of special districts dedicated to providing fire and EMS: fire districts and regional fire authorities (RFAs).  Both have similar funding models that rely more on property taxes as compared to cities which typically have a varied set of revenue sources.    RFAs were authorized by the state legislature in 2004 and their statutes provide significantly greater flexibility than fire districts’ statutes in terms of structuring governance to meet the needs of multiple participating jurisdictions. 

The funding model for Fire Districts and RFAs is relatively stable because property tax collections are stable, increasing at 1% per year, plus the value of taxes on new construction.  This means a fire district or RFA faces less of a financial challenge in difficult economic times. The same is not true for cities.  As mentioned above, Arlington is looking at 20% across the board cuts to balance this year’s budget.

Since RFAs have been authorized by state law, many have been approved by voters, combining existing fire service providers into new RFAs.  The main drivers have been the goals of gaining more stable funding for fire service and EMS, and achieving efficiencies and economies of scale by combining operations to serve a broader geographic territory.  Many of the RFAs have been created by traditional fire districts joining together.  There are now 13 RFAs in the state, including three in Snohomish County:  the NCRFA (one of the first in the state, created in 2007 by Fire Districts 14 and 18); South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue (created in 2017 combining Lynnwood and Fire District 1), and Marysville Regional Fire Authority (created in 2019, combining Marysville and Fire District 12). 

Voters must approve the creation of an RFA.  In order for a city or fire district to join an existing RFA, voters in the annexing jurisdiction must approve the shift to the RFA.  The property taxes supporting an RFA’s operations must be periodically approved by voters. Those funding sources are a fire levy, capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, and an EMS levy (replacing the City’s EMS levy) capped at $0.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.  Other voter-approved funding sources (property taxes for bonds, fire benefit charges) are also available to regional fire authorities, and RFAs may also impose fees for service.

In 2017, the City of Arlington discussed with Marysville and Fire District 12 creating a regional fire authority encompassing all three jurisdictions. Marysville withdrew from those discussions but later went on to reach a deal with Fire District 12 that was ultimately approved by voters.  Since that discussion ended, Arlington has looked to NCRFA as a partner for sharing costs and to secure economies of scale. As noted above, the two agencies have built a strong partnership.

1. Joining NCRFA would provide a more stable funding for Fire & EMS than the City of Arlington provides

Annexing Arlington Fire into NCRFA will stabilize funding for fire and EMS services because NCRFA has property-tax based funding that is more stable in an economic downturn than the City’s mix of funding.  

Property tax dependence is not perfect, because property tax revenues typically grow more slowly than inflation.  This means NCRFA must be very accountable to voters.  Voters must approve joining NCRFA, and may be asked periodically to approve NCRFA tax increases to support fire and EMS services.

2. Annexation to NCRFA would enable improvements in service levels

The Arlington Fire Department has always offered very good service to our community.  With growth, the needs of the community will continue to change; as the City becomes more urban, it becomes more complex and fire and medical response needs become more complex.  Annexation to the NCRFA will enable current services to become even better today – and better able to meet demands over time.  If annexation is approved, one of the first staffing improvements would be to ensure in-house 24-7 incident command staffing.  Arlington currently has contracts for assistance with a neighboring fire agency for incident command. NCRFA currently uses administrative staff responding from home or work to ensure command oversight.  Annexation will enable NCRFA to promoting fire fighter Captains to Battalion Chiefs.  This will ensure effective command on major incidents, ensuring the right resources are sent and that incidents are overseen by a dedicated officer assigned to this role at all times instead of needing to rely on a person who is on-call from home.  Battalion Chiefs will also provide daily management of maintenance activities, regulatory compliance and staff assignments.

Response times in most of the rural and suburban areas of the RFA should improve slightly with the ability to deploy the combined staff of the two agencies.  Urban response times in Arlington and Stanwood, which currently meet or exceed national guidelines, will remain the same.

NCRFA is building a fire training center in 2020 which will be available to Arlington at no charge if the annexation is approved.  This provides a dedicated training location, avoiding the need to use other public areas not intended for training, and the ability to train in more realistic scenarios.  In contrast, today the closest comparable training center is 38 miles away, which means staff In training cannot be deployed to local incidents if needed while training. 

In the first year after the annexation, NCRFA would seek to hire a Fire Prevention Captain to improve risk reduction efforts.  Risk reduction programs are intended to increase community safety.  By tracking local data specific to fire incidents in our area, the Fire Prevention Captain can then tailor public training, building code changes and public information to reduce the incidence of fires going forward.

3. Annexation would provide efficiencies in the delivery of fire and EMS services

If Arlington annexes into NCRFA, Arlington Fire Department employees, vehicles, and facilities will be under the unified direction of NCRFA.  With more staffing available to a single unified fire agency, staffing deployment can immediately be more efficient and not dependent on mutual aid response from other agencies which is entirely voluntary. Under mutual aid, there may be no response if the other agency determines it needs to hold requested staff and equipment. 

Combining fire apparatus from the City and NCRFA will facilitate a higher level of response in urban fire incidents.  For example, NCRFA has a ladder truck that can be a reserve to the Arlington ladder truck, used when out of service for repair and up staffing during a major incident, increasing capabilities and avoiding the need to purchase additional back-up vehicles.

With more medic units and fire trucks available on the front line and in reserve, there is less risk of needed units being unavailable when some units are out for mechanical reasons. In the event of a major incident, additional units are available to backfill those in service, and additional staff are on call to provide service during a response surge.

4. Annexation will enable more efficient delivery of services over time through economies of scale

Additional efficiencies after annexation include: savings in fleet maintenance, bulk purchasing savings (equipment, vehicles,) deployment of part-time firefighters, and information technology services. 

Annexation will enhance locating fire stations strategically as the population grows, reducing overlap which could occur with separate independent organizations.

5. Smooth Transition of Service

If voters approve the annexation, all City firefighters and other Arlington Fire Department employees will become employees of NCRFA. Fire services and EMS will continue to be provided out of the City’s fire stations. 

6. Shared governance control for Arlington and its residents

NCRFA is governed today by a board of six commissioners, all directly elected by NCRFA residents, including three districted positions and three at-large positions.  The City and NCRFA can decide together how to ensure Arlington and its residents are represented on the governance board if annexation is approved.  The discussions on governance are ongoing, and the negotiated agreement could involve additional appointed and/or directly elected board members from Arlington.  Arlington residents could run for any of the at large board positions.

7. The voters will choose how their fire and EMS service is funded

Shifting fire and EMS service to NCRFA is a choice which creates the opportunity for the City to repeal the Ambulance Utility Fee.  Arlington voters would no longer pay the City’s EMS levy either.  Instead, they would pay NCRFA’s EMS levy and fire levy.  Because the RFA depends on property taxes for the vast majority of its funding – a fire levy and an EMS levy-- voters will be asked to choose every few years whether to raise the purchasing power of property taxes.  These property tax lid lift”\ measures would be placed on the ballot periodically for both the NCRFA fire levy and EMS levy. 

8. Direct benefits to residents

Under NCRFA’s current policies, upon annexation into the NCRFA, Arlington residents with health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare will no longer be billed for their deductible portion of the ambulance transport costs, regardless of whether the insurance company pays the full amount billed or not.

 Improvements in training, risk reduction programs, and service levels identified above are anticipated to improve the ratings from the Washington State Risk Bureau which could translate to lower insurance premiums for residents and businesses inside the expanded RFA boundaries.

Annexing Arlington Fire into NCRFA will provide room to preserve or enhance other City services, particularly public safety.  How much funding for other services depends on how much the City reduces its general property tax levy once it is no longer responsible for fire and EMS service delivery.  The City is in the process of deliberating its course of action now.