A Lacey City Council member proposed yet another radical change for the city's fire district Tuesday night: merging it with the Olympia Fire Department.
Ron Lawson offered the suggestion to Olympia City Council members one day after floating it during a town hall meeting with constituents. He hadn’t discussed it with fellow Lacey council members or fire officials. In an interview Wednesday, Lawson also said the Tumwater Fire Department should be part of the effort to combine the departments into a regional fire authority.
He called on Olympia to put together a committee with Lacey representatives to make it happen. A combined department would operate more efficiently, saving taxpayers money, freeing up funds for fire equipment and improving responses, he said.
“My little comment last night was just the beginning,” Lawson said. “This is going to fly.”
He said he knew he’d take some heat, but he floated the idea without consulting his colleagues because the old way of doing things – staffs from both cities having discussions and nothing more – doesn’t work.
“That’s not beneficial,” he said. “That’s not taking care of the people’s business.”
Lawson favors forming a regional fire authority, a designation created by state law in 2004. A combined department would have central leadership, but “Olympia can still be Olympia, Lacey can still be Lacey,” he said.
He’d like for a combined department to appear in the next two to three years and for voters to consider the issue on an upcoming ballot.
Firefighter union representatives in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater – all three of which are open to the idea – say there have been talks about combining.
Kelly Perry, the president of Lacey firefighters union Local 2903, said his group has supported combining the departments for some time and began discussing the issue about two years ago.
“We want to look at the information and see what a plan might look like and then again let the policymakers decide whether it is worthwhile to go down that road,” he said.
Mike Simmons, the president of Olympia firefighters Local 468, said his union doesn’t oppose the plan. Jeff Jernigan, president of Tumwater Firefighters Local 2409, said his union has supported the plan for “a long time.”
City Council members in Lacey and Olympia had a cooler reaction.
Olympia Mayor Doug Mah said it’s premature to talk about combining services, given that Olympia and Lacey deliver their fire services so differently. Olympia has its own city department, funded by city taxes. Lacey is within Lacey Fire District 3, an independent fire district that raises its own tax money separate from the city and is governed separately.Skip Houser, the chairman of Lacey Fire District 3, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Mah said Lawson doesn’t have authority to talk about the issue because Lacey doesn’t run Lacey Fire District 3. In addition, he said, the Lacey district has its own issues to sort out, including its governance and how it provides service, and conditions aren’t right to talk about a combination.
“It would make more sense for the City of Olympia to be looking at collaborating with the City of Tumwater, which also has a fire department which is a municipal fire department and is funded in the same manner,” he said.
Olympia Councilman Steve Langer said it makes sense to cooperate on regional issues and that he would continue the discussion with Lawson, but he didn’t give his opinion specifically on the fire department issue. Olympia Councilwoman Rhenda Strub said she’d be open to talking about consolidating, but “cost saving is not the only thing to look at,” and residents “first and foremost want quality.”
The Lacey City Council has not discussed a merger or alternatives to current fire services, said Deputy Mayor Virgil Clarkson, who added that he opposes a merger.
Clarkson said that if Lawson had wanted to discuss merging, that should have happened before voters approved the city annexing its fire services into Lacey Fire District 3 last year.
Before that, the city contracted with Lacey Fire District 3 for fire service. The city was annexed after the Lacey council controversially tried to separate from District 3 and create its own fire department, angering the fire union and resulting in residents voting out some council incumbents. Lawson was one of the new council members elected with the backing of the fire union.
Lacey Councilwoman Cynthia Pratt said pooling resources is never a bad idea but that Olympia fire personnel told her they aren’t interested in a merger. She also said now isn’t the time to talk merger, but she left open the possibility later on, saying that in a few years there might be a way to make it work.
Lacey Councilman Andy Ryder questioned Lacey’s role.
“I support any way we can work together regionally to find cost savings for our citizens,” he said. “But on this specific issue, I’m in support of the two sides talking but the City of Lacey is not a part of this process.”
Fire chiefs in Lacey and Olympia deferred to their governments. Tumwater Chief John Carpenter said he wouldn’t be opposed to talking about it but that it’s probably premature.
Multiple fire authorities have formed nearby in recent years. In Thurston County, Yelm fire joined forces with Rainier fire to become the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority, and Rochester fire and Little Rock fire became the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority.
The changes save taxpayer money, Lawson said.
Matt Batcheldor: firstname.lastname@example.org