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'Timing not right' to consolidate Poulsbo, North Kitsap fire districts

POULSBO — Although fire officials have hoped for many years to consolidate the two fire districts that serve North Kitsap, the two district’s fire chiefs say now is not the time.

“We can’t do it today, the timing’s just not right,” said outgoing Poulsbo Fire Chief Dan Olson. However, he added, “doing nothing is not an option.”

The chiefs presented their recommendation to the North Kitsap Fire & Rescue and Poulsbo Fire’s boards of commissioners May 21, based on the districts' strained financial resources.

As one consolidated district, the chiefs said the immediate benefits would be improved communication and cost savings by merging administrative positions. However, two factors come into play as a merged district that would add financial burden.

State law requires districts to base wages with comparable coverage areas; with a larger district comes a larger population, and employee wages would potentially increase by 18 percent.

State law also limits fire districts’ property tax revenue at a 1 percent increase every year, based on the last year’s revenue. However, this year, both Poulsbo and NKF&R have reached their maximum levy rate. As property values drop, so do the districts’ total tax revenues, according to NKF&R spokesperson Michele Laboda. Both districts project that they’ll be collecting 5 percent less in 2012 than they did in 2011, leaving no room for the additional costs associated with this merger.

Olson and NKF&R Fire Chief Dan Smith conducted an analysis — looking between 2013-2017 — of the two districts individually, as a merged district with current staffing and level of service and as a merged district with enhanced level of service. The chiefs worked with a committee of firefighter volunteers, union representatives, administration and finance personnel from each district.

As a merged district, the chiefs found cash flow would be in the negative by 2017, partly due to these financial constraints, and partly due to the end of current grant funding.

In a notable show of collaboration, each district’s Board of Commissioners have met for more than four years to discuss sharing of resources and consolidation.

“Maybe in the future the door opens,” Olson said.

Olson said he and Smith suggest the board continue to look for smaller forms of consolidation, such as training programs.

“We’re not looking for a short term solution, we’re looking for something we can inject now,” said Poulsbo Fire Commissioner David Ellingson. The commissioners agreed to “digest this information” and meet again to discuss other consolidation options.

The board also welcomed Poulsbo’s interim Fire Chief, Jeff Griffin. Olson announced his resignation in April, after accepting a position with the Vancouver, Wash. Fire Department. His last day is June 1.

Griffin comes to Poulsbo from Eastside Fire, via the United Arab Emirates. He worked for a UK company to begin a firefighting service in the Middle East, for four months last year. After he returned to the Pacific Northwest, a former boss of his recommended his name to the Poulsbo Fire Commission.

“I’ve been coming to Poulsbo as a boater and [as] someone who’s always enjoyed this community,” Griffin said. “This department, the leadership has done a great job heading into really difficult downturn in the economy... I’m looking for ways to build on that structure of [this] fire department’s stability.”

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