Lacey Councilman Ron Lawson has done this community a favor by raising the possibility of merging fire services. City and fire officials should convene a merger task force that includes citizens, city and fire officials to explore the notion of a regional fire system.
Think about it. Many public services in South Sound already are provided on a regional basis. We have a regional approach to wastewater treatment through LOTT. Medic One, 911 dispatch, transit, animal services, regional planning, public health and, to a degree, library services, are provided to the public through regional cooperation. Doesn’t it make sense to at least consider regionalizing water, parks, police and fire service?
We think so.
The city limit lines on a map of South Sound are thin, but those boundary lines often serve as insurmountable hurdles when anyone dares to raise the notion of consolidation. It’s the reason Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater each have their own street department, their own utility department, finance and human resource offices, police, fire, parks, public works and city administrative offices. Think of the duplication – three police chiefs, three human resource officers, three city managers, three, three, three ...
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Newcomers to South Sound look at all the duplication and scratch their heads in wonder.
So good for Councilman Lawson who, on his own, went to the Olympia City Council and suggested a merger of the Olympia Fire Department and Lacey Fire District 3. He suggests Tumwater Fire Department be part of the discussion as well. Lawson even went so far as to say a merger of fire services could lead to additional consolidation efforts.
What Lawson lacks in experience on the Lacey City Council – he didn’t take office until January 2010 – he makes up for in political courage. How many other council members have you heard raise consolidation possibilities in an open, public meeting?
And Lawson is convinced he can push this issue forward with success. “My little comment last night was just the beginning,” Lawson said. “This is going to fly.”
Lawson is a bit of a maverick. In this politically correct community there is an unwritten rule among council members: No surprises. Almost every issue bubbles up through city staff and council subcommittees and arrives at the full council pretty well vetted. Council members don’t like to be caught off guard on any issue, dare they look uninformed to their constituents.
But Lawson broke that tradition last week when he dropped the merger idea on the Olympia City Council without even consulting fire officials or his fellow Lacey City Council members in advance. That move will automatically put some officials in the opposition camp.
Lawson is pushing a regional fire authority with a central command without merging the cities. That steps on a lot of toes, so it was a bit of a surprise that fire union officials in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater said they are open to the idea.
That’s a good start.
Not surprisingly, Lawson’s merger plan received a more cool reception by Deputy Lacey Mayor Virgil Clarkson and Olympia Mayor Doug Mah. Clarkson outright opposes a merger. City officials are almost always averse to giving up or losing power over any city function.
But the fact is, multiple fire authorities have joined forces in Thurston County in recent years. Yelm fire joined forces with Rainier fire to become the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority, and Rochester fire and Littlerock fire became the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority.
The changes save taxpayer money, Lawson said.
Both Olympia and Lacey Fire District 3 have relatively new stations and have enjoyed voter support when asking for additional dollars to build new stations or purchase new equipment. They are of comparable size.
We call upon the city councils in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater to form a joint task force with citizen, public official and fire representatives. Give them the authority to collect data and study the pros and cons of merging fire services in South Sound. The task force also should have a deadline to report back to the community on their findings and recommendations.
There’s nothing to be lost by at least having the community conversation.