City council welcomes new MLT city manager, discusses reasons for fire annexation vote

New City Manager Jeff Niten started his job Monday.He was welcomed by the Mountlake Terrace City Council Monday night.

The details of a proposal now before voters to annex Mountlake Terrace into the South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue Regional Fire Authority (South County Fire) was the main topic of discussion at Monday’s Mountlake Terrace City Council meeting.

The council also welcomed new City Manager Jeff Niten, who started his job Monday. The city council unanimously selected Niten — city manager for the City of Shelton — following interviews with five finalists. His contract was approved in March. He replaces former City Manager Scott Hugill, who resigned last fall due to health reasons.

“I am very happy to be here and excited to be a part of the process of moving Mountlake Terrace forward,” Niten told the council.

The question about the fire annexation measure — the subject of a special election with ballots due by April 25 — was raised by longtime Mountlake Terrace resident Len French. During public comment, French said that he and other voters he knows are confused about the details of measure, why it is necessary and how much residents will end up paying for fire service if it is approved.

Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton responded with a brief overview of the issue, explaining that Mountlake Terrace has a 20-year contract with South County Fire for fire and emergency medical services (EMS) that expires at the end of 2024.

If the voters don’t approve annexing into South County Fire, then the city has to negotiate a new contract and that will be much more expensive. “This issue here is, we’re at a crossroads because the city will not be paying the great rates that it’s paying today for the same (fire and EMS) service,” Clifton said. The city in 2023 will pay South County Fire $3.7 million for fire and EMS service.

Without annexation, if the City were to execute a new contract with South County Fire today, the city would pay an additional $3 million in 2023 dollars, Clifton said. “That’s because by law, South County Fire must charge the city the same rate that South County Fire property owners pay, and that money will come out of the city’s general fund.”

As a result, this would significantly reduce funding for city services such as police, parks and recreation, planning, and public works.

The city council reviewed several options to continue providing fire service, including the city creating its own fire department, which is the most expensive option and is cost-prohibitive, Clifton said. The council also looked at joining other cities to possibly provide fire service, but Lynnwood and Mill Creek voters have already been annexed into South County Fire and the City of Brier voters are also considering annexation on the the same April 25 ballot. As for other nearby cities, Edmonds has a contract with South County Fire that runs through 2030 and Shoreline works through King County emergency services, “so it doesn’t make sense to partner with them because we communicate primarily with Snohomish County emergency services,” Clifton said.

So the council decided to put the question before voters, asking them if they wanted to be annexed into South County Fire.

Currently, property owners pay the city for fire and EMS services through the city’s property tax levy. The city then pays South County Fire to provide fire and EMS. If voters approve the annexation request now on the ballot, property owners would pay South County Fire directly for fire and EMS services starting in 2024.

The city currently spends $1,744,166 of its property tax levy on fire and EMS. If voters approve annexation, the city will reduce this tax collection by $1,694,166 in 2024. When voting in January to put the measure before voters, the city council chose to retain $50,000 of that amount to help low-income households pay their utility bills. The city will also eliminate its current EMS levy.

If annexation were in effect today, the owner of a 2,000-square-foot home with an assessed property value of $616,742 — considered average in Mountlake Terrace — would pay South County Fire approximately $746 per year for 24-hour fire and EMS. With the city’s property tax reduction and the elimination of the city EMS levy, the net increase would be $395 per year or about $33 per month.

In addition, Clifton noted that information about the measure, including a recording of an April 12 meeting on the matter as well as a list of answers to frequently asked questions, can be found on the city’s fire annexation webpage here.

Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl also addressed French’s question, and began by stating that the city can’t advocate for or against the ballot measure and is just providing information about it.

“The cost of providing fire services has more than doubled in the last 20 years and so now we have a decision to make. The fire district is not going to give us another 20-year contract,” Wahl said.

“One way or another, we are going to have to pay more, more than double” — either through short-term contracts with South County Fire or through annexation, Wahl continued. He added that if voters approve annexation,  Mountlake Terrace will have representation on the South County Fire board of directors, which it doesn’t have currently as a contracted city. “Taxation with representation; our citizens will be able to voice their concerns and have a vote in district matters,” Wahl said.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. After attending council’s 4/17 meeting, I find they have credibility issues with the current Fire/EMS annexation vote. Were their actions reflective of a commitment to fully inform their neighbors, the recent Happenings would have plainly stated what was discussed: annexation will effectively double the cost of Fire/EMS.

    They might have also confirmed whether Mill Creek’s or Mukilteo’s costs figured into their decisions. Two cities of equal population, but larger geography have very different 2023 Fire EMS costs. Mill Creek taxpayers have experienced in 2023 what we can expect in 2024 – an historic doubling of costs once annexation was complete. Mukilteo, with its own fire department, has 2023 costs of $5.3. Our 2024 costs will be $7 million.

    We own our fire station. The FAQs on the issue say staffing and service levels will be the same after the annexation. Why does simply cutting out the city as the middle man collecting taxes result in such a huge increase? And what’s wrong with having our own department?

    Council took great pains to claim they could take no position on this ballot measure. That is disingenuous. Council and senior staff know that off-month ballot measures are conceived to produce lower turnout which benefits the Yes vote.

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