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South Kitsap/Bremerton fire district merger idea back on the front burner

The on-again, off-again merger between South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and its sister district in Bremerton could be on again.

In fact, the idea could become a reality by 2012.

South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and the Bremerton Fire Department plan to nail down the details of the merger between the two departments that would, in turn, come to the voters for approval on the November ballot.

“If the voters don’t think this is a good idea, nothing changes,” said SKFR Chief Wayne Senter.

But if voters support it, the two departments could potentially save money and provide better service to the area, according to a fact-finding report prepared by stakeholders from both fire departments last August.

Savings could total $140,000 the first year, $935,000 in the first three years and $655,000 each year thereafter, for the station’s new $22 million combined budget, according to the report.

And the new, consolidated fire district would be “positioned to survive the economic storm in the short term and thrive once recovery comes to public safety,” according to the report.

Organizational impacts would save the districts up to $515,000 each year, representing the biggest line-item for cost savings, according to the report.

Reductions in overtime pay alone would save up to $72,000, the report’s authors project.

But several members of the Manchester Safety Council, a group of local community activists, have raised questions about whether the merger is really worth the effort, especially considering the small percentage of savings.

“We want to make sure we get an improvement out of the deal,” said Manchester resident Bob Lamb. “Staying even, to us, makes no sense, because if we’re going to stay even, why go to all the bother?”

The group takes issue with several other aspects of the merger, as well.

“Bremerton is an incorporated city,” said Lamb. “The fire department is run by the city government. How do we manage the funding situation? We want to make sure it’s fair and equitable for all sides.”

The group has written a total of 12 concerns they have about the merger.

“These are the questions that haven’t been answered,” Lamb said.

If South Kitsap Fire and Rescue answers the group’s questions well, it will support the merger, said Lamb, who spent several months in a budget review committee that first pushed the fire district to look into the idea of merging.

“Interestingly, the citizen’s budget review committee has stated that we need to continue to move forward with the regional fire authority effort for three years in a row,” Senter said. “Three years in a row, they direct us to keep moving forward, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

However, Senter continued, if the station gathers more information, and determines the merger won’t help South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, it won’t go foward with it.

“If we get to the end of the process and we discover there are not efficiencies,” he said, “and this is not a good deal for SKFR, then we are going to be the first people to say, ‘We did what you asked, and it didn’t make sense, and here’s why.’”

If it does make sense, however, “We’ll have a different recommendation,” Senter said.

The Bremerton Fire Department, meanwhile, has taken a similarly open-handed approach to the issue, said Al Duke, the department’s chief.

“We have to provide the same service,” he said, “or either party is going to say no.”

And residents of Bremerton have had similar concerns about the issue.

“Bremerton has the concern that we’re going to take some of our people out to supplement South Kitsap,” Duke said.

Still, merging the two districts could be an efficient use of resources, he said, since it could allow employees to specialize instead of being forced to perform a wider variety of jobs.

“We’re trying to get the information with a work plan,” Duke explained, “so we can see how it’s going to operate and what it’s going to do.”

Leaders from South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and the Bremerton Fire Department will hold a public meeting to work on details for the potential merge at 9 a.m. on Feb. 4 at the Bremerton Fire Department.

They plan to continue holding public meetings to work on the proposal at the same time on the first Friday of each month.

Issues Current with SKFD/Bremerton Proposed Merger

1. Rocky Point, a small community extending into the southwest region of Dyes Inlet is in the SKFRD. It is distant and somewhat isolated from SKFRD. It is in the SKFRD because in a past action, Rocky Point residents petitioned to join the district because they apparently did not want service from Bremerton. Today, Bremerton serves them and SKFRD reimburses Bremerton for providing the service. This arrangement should be changed to place Rocky Point under direct service from Bremerton.

2. Navy Yard City is under the same arrangement as Rocky Point. This should be changed as well.

3. A development at the intersection of Highway 3 and the intersection of the road serving Port Orchard is in the City of Bremerton. But, given the close proximity to Port Orchard, it is served by SKFRD. This arrangement is similar to Rocky Point with the exception that Bremerton does not reimburse SKFRD for the service. This development should be placed under direct service from SKFRD.

4. The Port of Bremerton’s industrial park and airport is within the Bremerton service area, yet SKFRD station is located right next to the eastern boundary of the Port. So, the SKFRD is positioned for a better response times than Bremerton for Port emergencies. The service for the Port should be transferred from Bremerton to SKFRD.

5. Interlocal service agreements between the various fire and rescue service areas currently provide for additional aid at any location when it is needed. This provision makes a merger between SKFRD and Bremerton unnecessary.

6. Gorst is a natural barrier between Bremerton and SKFRD, and a merging of the two fire and rescue service areas would not change this fact. So, each of the two districts would need the same independent service capabilities in order to respond in each region to emergencies. This is especially true when stormy weather and traffic accidents totally block access between the two service areas. Thus, there is no efficiency in needed equipment or operational response by merging the service areas. In fact there will be additional need for housing and communication systems in order to merge the two services into one functional unit.

7. The SKFRD is one of only 6 fire district certified in the state. Bremerton is not certified. This leads to questions about Bremerton’s training, equipment and management capabilities when compared with SKFRD. Also, SKFRD has been passing levies to provide the needed funding to add crew, train crew and obtain the latest in equipment, in contrast to Bremerton reducing funding for their fire department. Bremerton City Council has reduced funding; 2009 = $400,000, 2010 = $350,000, and 2011 = $400,000, or a total of $1,150,000 in the last 3 years.

8. There is an appearance of bias for merger on the planning committee. Two of the SKFRD commissioners appointed to the committee have close ties to Bremerton; Darla Hartley lives in the Rocky Point neighborhood, and Paul Golnik recently retired as a captain for the Bremerton Fire Department. The planning committee, which is responsible for a merger recommendation, also contains 3 member from the Bremerton City Council. Dusty Wiley, a resident of Manchester, who has voiced opposition to the merger, has not been appointed to the planning committee. Jerry Preuss, the other member from Manchester, has voiced preference for merger, and he has been appointed to the committee.

9. Chief Senter from SKFRD has a credibility problem because he has already been chosen as Chief for the combined fire and rescue service. The present chief for the Bremerton Department plans to retire soon.

10. The location for the new headquarters has apparently not been chosen yet. It is known that neither one of the existing headquarters buildings are big enough to house the combined headquarter personnel. It is assumed that a new headquarters will be needed, complete with state-of –the-art communication equipment, and this has not been included in the planning or cost evaluation documents at this time.

11. The main motivation for a merger, as presented by Chief Senter, is efficiency of cost and response times. The projected savings identified awhile back by a consultant is approximately $1,000,000 over 3 years, or $330,000 per year for the two service areas. The annual budgets are $12,000,000 for SKFRD and $8,000,000 for Bremerton. So, the projected saving are approximately 1.5%. This is a very small savings, and cannot be counted on to actually be a savings at all since it is a projection, and a much change has to take place before the two district can merge and be one functional unit. This reason should be taken out of the discussion for lack of its credibility.

12. There is a significant problem with designing a equitable, common funding mechanism for the merged service area because of the difference in governance for the two regions. SKFRD receives their funding from property taxes, and the City’s department receives theirs from the City Councils general fund. There are apparent plans for eventual separation of some degree from the Bremerton City Council but no plans for complete separation. Thus, future funding for Bremerton’s portion will remain under control of their City Council, in effect; it is very likely that the entire merged service will actually be under the control of the City Council, leaving SKFRD residents with the loss of control of their service district. It is already known that the assessed valuation of Bremerton cannot support their portion of the merged service area, to the SKFR standard, without additional funding from the City Council. In addition, there are two unions involved with different contracts, which is a significant problem to work out to an equitable solution.

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