MLT city council agrees to place South County Fire annexation question on ballot this April

The Mountlake Terrace City Council discusses the possibility of annexing the city into South Snohomish County Regional Fire Authority.

The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its Thursday, Jan. 12 work/study session voted to place a measure before voters this April asking whether the city should annex into the South Snohomish County Regional Fire Authority, otherwise known as South County Fire.

Prior to the council vote, Mountlake Terrace Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton gave councilmembers an overview of the presentation that was provided at their Jan. 3 meeting.

The city’s current 20-year interlocal agreement with South County Fire will end Dec. 31, 2024, and the fire district is not interested in renewing another long-term contract with the city. Because of this, Mountlake Terrace had limited options. It could have either annexed into the fire district, attempted to create its own fire department or signed a contract with another city for its fire services.

“Like I said in my previous presentation, the city has few options available for delivering fire services,” Clifton said. Creating its own fire service would be extremely costly for the city and there are no nearby cities that Mountlake Terrace could feasibly contract with, Clifton said.

It’s estimated that fire support services from South County Fire will cost the city $3.7 million in 2023, but Clifton said that number would skyrocket if Mountlake Terrace decided to reestablish its own fire department. If residents decided they did not want to annex into the fire authority, the assistant city manager said costs would more than double for taxpayers as well.

Because of the financial issues the city would face if it did not annex, Clifton recommended that Mountlake Terrace do so before the end of the current agreement with South County Fire, adding it is the most reasonable choice at this time.

“[If the city annexed,] the amount extra it will cost an average homeowner is relatively modest [compared to the city’s other options],” Clifton said.

Staff from the city and South County Fire are discussing what would happen to Fire Station 19, located next to the Mountlake Terrace Police Station, if the city annexes. While the fire authority would like to assume ownership of the building, it sits on a parcel of city property. Discussions between parties will continue until an agreement is made on who would retain ownership of the building should the city’s voters choose annexation.

The preferred timeline for voting on the fire authority annexation would be before the end of 2023, Clifton said. However, if a vote doesn’t happen this year, it would need to occur no later than April 2024 to take effect before South County Fire’s agreement with Mountlake Terrace expires.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl made a motion to place the annexation measure before voters this April, and the motion passed unanimously.

South County Fire is a regional fire authority established in 2017 by voters in unincorporated southwest Snohomish County and the City of Lynnwood. City of Mill Creek voters approved annexation into the regional fire authority in 2022.

South County Fire also provides fire and emergency medical services (EMS) to the cities of Brier and Edmonds — in addition to Mountlake Terrace — under three separate service contracts.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl was reelected as mayor pro tem for Mountlake Terrace.

Additionally, Councilmember Wahl was reelected as council’s mayor pro tem. In his role, Wahl will act as a stand-in mayor when current Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright is absent for any reason. Wahl was nominated by Councilmember Steve Woodard and he was unanimously approved for the position.

The council also received a 2022 biennium budget update from the city’s Finance Director Janella Lewis.

According to Lewis, the recreation fund balance dropped into the negatives at the end of 2021 and the amendment will work to correct that before the final budget is filed for 2022.

“You can see there was a revenue shortfall of about $343,000 for aquatics,” Lewis said.

Two grants, from the Washington Recreation and Park Association SEEK fund and Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, were awarded to the city at the end of last year. Those – along with a general fund transfer of approximately $89,000 – will correct the negative fund balance and put the recreation fund balance at roughly $100,000 for the end of the budget year.

The only other major amendment change is removal of the city’s unspent American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. While councilmembers talked about numerous options for how to spend the funds in 2022, only roughly $1.3 million was allotted to specific causes during the year. 

“Because we did not spend all of it in 2022, I am going to reduce the budget to the amount that we [actually spent],” Lewis said.

After these adjustments, the total general fund balance will decrease from roughly $10.6 million to $8 million.

In other business, the council discussed updating the language in Chapter 2.12 of the Mountlake Terrace Municipal Code governing councilmember salaries. Instead of using precise dollar amounts in the code, the council wants to change the language to say, “refer to the salary ordinance that was agreed upon.” This way, the code does not need to be revised every time a change in discussed dollar amounts occurs.

However, councilmembers will hold off voting on the matter until more information on the city’s plan for a future salary commission is brought before the council.

The council also received a short presentation regarding the city’s 2022 third-quarter budget, reviewed the memorandum of understanding between Snohomish County 911, Snohomish County Public Utility District and the city, and reviewed the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee 2023 funding recommendations.

Both the lodging tax funding recommendations as well as the Snohomish County 911 agreement will be on the council’s Jan. 17 meeting consent agenda.

— By Lauren Reichenbach

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