Snohomish Fire works to extinguish Maple Avenue fire station closure talks
SNOHOMISH — The narrative on the future of Station 41 on Maple Avenue continues to morph.
At the same time, Fire District 4 is on damage control trying to extinguish the idea the Maple Avenue station is closing. On Friday, Aug. 16, fire union members leafletted downtown encouraging people to speak up to “save Fire Station 41” at the Monday, Aug. 19 fire district meeting that happened after press time.
The issue was brought to the public’s attention by fire commission candidate Evan Merritt, who’s hoping to unseat incumbent Mark Hintz.
In phone interviews, Hintz and Fire Chief Ron Simmons said the fire district made an amended offer to the city on July 22 to buy all three properties currently co-owned by the district and the city: The Maple Avenue station, the fire district’s headquarters on Avenue D and the land leased to the Snohomish Community Food Bank.
The City Council hasn’t met since July 16, skipping a meeting date on Tuesday, Aug. 6 to honor National Night Out, so it hasn’t met to review any different offer. The council next meets Aug. 20 after press time.
The original land exchange contract signed between the city and the fire district in November 2018 splits the properties: The fire district would receive 100 percent ownership of its Avenue D headquarters and the food bank parcel, and the city would receive 100 percent ownership of the Maple Avenue station site.
In the contract, it says the Maple Avenue station facilities “no longer serve (the fire district’s) needs,” a comment that’s set off fire district watchdogs and the firefighter’s union.
City officials toured the Maple Avenue station on Aug. 7 as part of the due diligence process. Soon after, Merritt posted a video from that meeting stating the station is closing.
“The mood in the room — there wasn’t a doubt that that was the plan,” Merritt said.
In a phone interview with Merritt, when asked for his evidence the Maple Avenue station is closing, he said he has viewed documents, including the real estate agreement that says the station is no longer serves the public’s needs. He also mentioned the videotaped public meeting that is posted on his Facebook page.
The city and fire district have a Sept. 19 conclusion date for the due diligence phase of its co-ownership of these properties.
Due diligence is a common phase in real estate purchases, where a potential owner gathers information to determine risks of owning a property.
Fire Chief Ron Simmons told the Tribune earlier this month: “There are no plans to close Maple Avenue station” while responding to Merritt’s claim online that the process was secretive.
In a discussion of meeting minutes going back to September of last year, City Councilman Tom Merrill said firefighters approached multiple council members earlier this year about concerns on the potential closure of Station 41. He said this indicates Merritt’s depiction of secretive meetings was inaccurate.
“Members of the fire union have known about this for four or five months,” Merrill said. “I can see the public going, ‘whoa, this is going on. I need to catch up on it,” he said, but saying it was done in secret is “disingenuous.”
Public documents show the conversation has been ongoing include fire commission minutes, City Council minutes and a press release drafted by the city. Both entities also announced public meetings in legal announcements. Few people attend these meetings and none spoke up on the real estate deal at these meetings, from months of meeting minutes the Tribune reviewed.
The concern for possible closure of a station has roots in public documents as well.
A city press release from January says Station 41 has been deemed unsustainable, and in that press release, Simmons is quoted saying: “The continued attempt to operate from all four of our stations financially does not work.” The district mans three stations: Maple Avenue (No. 41), Avenue D (No. 43) and a station in Three Lakes (No. 42); a fourth station in northwest Snohomish (No. 40) is not staffed. A city press release says discussions will begin on the “possible uses for the Fire Station 41 property on Maple Avenue.”
Located at 427 Maple Ave., the Maple Avenue station was constructed in 1995. Voters approved $2.31 million worth of bonds for construction and new equipment in summer of 1994, and the key piece was constructing this fire station for almost $800,000, according to Tribune and Fire District 4 archives. The city and Fire District 4 split the costs to build the new station.
Maple Avenue station is Fire District 4’s centrally located building and according to the 2017 annual report. While it received nearly 2,000 calls in 2017, per the annual report, not all those calls are handled by the station, Simmons said. Instead, calls are handled according to which vehicle is closest to the emergency, said Hintz, who’s been on the board for 15 years.
Merritt added multiple social media posts after his independent determination of the September closure of Maple Avenue station.
On an “Evan Merritt for Fire Commissioners” response to his own post, he wrote: “The only people who had any clue were apparently the fire chief and the board of commissioners. The chairman of the Board is Mark Hintz. I am running against Mark for a spot on the board of commissioners. THIS is why I’m running!,” casting himself as a transparent candidate for voters to choose.
Asked directly in a phone interview if he was using the Maple Avenue station concerns to increase his public presence for his candidacy, he said, “No, absolutely not. I was trying to stay as positive as I can throughout my run.”
He said he heard that Chief Simmons had reached out to other candidates before the primary, but not to him. When asked if he had reached out to the chief, he said, “No, I did not.”
Merritt is a Fire District 7 firefighter. He has also heard that he is being accused of pushing for a merger of Fire District 4 into surrounding districts. “Never once have I ever advocated for a merger (of Fire District 4).”
Simmons, in an Aug. 16 interview, said his concerns on Merritt’s candidacy comes from his position as the Chief.
“There is a huge conflict of interest because (Merritt) is an employee of a neighboring district.” He said if Merritt won election to become a Fire District 4 commissioner, he would have to recuse himself from a lot of discussion and a lot of votes due to his work with Fire District 7.
Merger talks have popped up because Fire District 4 currently stands out against a trend of area fire district mergers.
This month, voters approved joining Lake Stevens Fire into Fire District 7. The non-congruous district will serve 162,000 residents and Fire District 4 will remain a patch of land in the middle of that new coverage area. Monroe’s Fire District 3 merged into District 7 a few years ago. South County Fire, formerly known as Fire District 1, grew into a conglomeration protecting numerous cities, of which a few merged their city fire departments into the larger district.
No merger is under consideration for Fire District 4,
but some say the union would benefit from a larger organization, overseeing resources. Shawn Osborne, president of IAFF Local 2694, the union representing Fire District 4’s firefighters, said that if any future discussion of a merger arose at the commission-level, his goal “is to be sure the local is on board with what is best for the public. We’re public servants. That’s why we got into this.” Osborne is also a fire district lieutenant, but clarified that he was speaking on behalf of the union.
Fire District 4 is responsible for protecting about 30,000 residents within a 62 square mile area.
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