Mill Creek exploring switch of fire agencies

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Mill Creek is looking at changing fire service providers after shopping around. The change came after Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue dug in over how low a price the city pays.
The city has a $4.34 million contract to be served by Snohomish Regional for 2022.
About a year ago, the fire department headquartered in Monroe gave Mill Creek a choice: Increase the contract price City Hall pays starting in 2023 to continue service, or arrange to be annexed so residents pay fire taxes at the same rate as everyone else in the district.
Instead, on Dec. 14, Mill Creek’s City Council voted to explore being annexed into South County Fire. South County Fire would be cheaper for residents in the long run, a city consultant presented earlier this month.
Any annexation requires a public vote to be subject to taxes.
South County Fire’s overall tax burden is generally cheaper for residential homeowners and all but the largest commercial building owners, a Mill Creek consultant’s chart shows. Its tax model uses both a property tax and also a fire benefit charge.
“We would be disappointed to see Mill Creek choose a different fire and EMS agency, but respect the decision of the City Council to seek services elsewhere,” Snohomish Regional’s Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said by email.
O’Brien added that Snohomish Regional put its foot down out of fairness: “We can’t in good conscience ask our taxpayers to pay more (as they agreed to do in our recent fire levy lid lift) when the city,” meaning Mill
Creek, “pays about half that amount. That’s why we gave the city notice that the contract would not be renewed without a cost increase.”
Mill Creek has been served by Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue, once known as Fire District 7, since well before the city incorporated in 1983. The partnership began in 1945.
In 2019, Fire District 7 had a voter-approved merger with Lake Stevens Fire to create today’s Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue.
Snohomish Regional has asked for annexation multiple times, O’Brien said. “There was no incentive for the city to do so because the rate they paid for fire and EMS was so low,” he wrote.
Months after being told to decide, the city began talking with South County Fire this summer.
For an average $600,000 home, it would cost about $850 in tax under South County Fire versus about $1,100 under Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue.
South County Fire’s basic tax rate currently is 93 cents per $1,000 in property value, plus it levies a fire benefit charge on top that varies based on a building’s square footage and use. South County Fire’s maximum allowed basic tax rate is $1.00 per $1,000 in property value because it has a fire benefit charge, South County Fire spokeswoman Leslie Hynes explained.
Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue’s tax rate is $1.50 per $1,000 with no fire benefit charge.
Both agencies also charge EMS levies.
Snohomish Regional can afford losing the Mill Creek contract, its fire chief said. The $4.3 million contract will provide approximately 5 percent of the fire district’s overall 2022 budget.
“SRFR is strong financially, and has policies in place for long-term financial planning,” O’Brien wrote. “Because of these actions, we will be able to absorb the loss with no negative impacts to operations in other areas of the District.”
Snohomish Regional estimated its services would cost the Mill Creek community a cumulative $9.37 million for 2023 if annexed. South County Fire’s estimate came in at around $7 million if annexation happens.
Both fire agencies want Mill Creek to annex in, according to the city.
A fire station in Mill Creek is jointly owned by Mill Creek and Snohomish Regional. If the city goes with South County Fire, the city would pay off Snohomish Regional for this fire station. Snohomish Regional then would move its aid car at Station 76 to another station, and can delay buying a replacement vehicle within the fleet, O’Brien explained.
“South County Fire looks forward to working with Mill Creek and has long supported regionalization as the most cost-effective way to provide high quality fire and emergency medical services,” South County Fire Board of Commissioners chair Greg Urban said in a statement.