By Pat Jenkins
Eatonville’s fire department could become part of South Pierce Fire and Rescue as part of a proposal by Mayor Mike Schaub to make public safety more affordable for the town.
Schaub says the town can’t afford to pay for its own fire and police departments. So he and Town Council members are making long-term funding decisions that may require Eatonville to stop fully funding one department or the other.
The town wouldn’t lose either service, Schaub said. But the first-year mayor believes, and he said the council agrees with him, that putting fire protection and emergency medical services (EMS) under the control of South Pierce Fire is the best solution.
Schaub said preliminary discussions with South Pierce officials indicate that funding for service in Eatonville would come from the fire district’s levies, which would be applied to Eatonville for its share.
Converting Eatonville Fire and Rescue to part of South Pierce Fire and Rescue would likely require an annexation election.
Schaub said he would want the Eatonville fire department’s station at Town Hall to remain open and staffed by the district.
Schaub, who was the town’s treasurer before being elected mayor last November, said Eatonville doesn’t have sufficient revenue to pay for maintaining its own fire and police departments. That shortcoming isn’t expected to improve, meaning long-term financial footing for public safety can’t be sustained, he said.
Covering the cost of an independent police department with town-generated revenue that’s available “seems to be the consensus in terms of the best value for our citizens,” Schaub said. He added that “the citizens seem to prefer the security of having their own police” instead of relying on an outside agency for law enforcement.
In 2012, then-mayor Ray Harper proposed disbanding the town’s police agency and replacing it with contracted service from the Pierce County Sheriff Department. He made the proposal as a cost-cutting move, citing budgetary constraints that made it difficult to pay for police and the rest of the town’s services to the public. The Town Council rejected the plan.
Eatonville still faces a dilemma trying to afford public safety, Schaub said. The police and fire departments combined cost $1.6 million a year, at about $800,000 apiece. The fire department has been kept afloat largely by a $300,000 federal grant that expires at end of 2014. The town currently has no way to replace that funding, and projections of tax revenue fall short of the amount that would be needed in the years ahead, Schaub said.
The mayor outlined the situation at a public meeting June 25 at the town Visitors Center.
In a related move, the council is scheduled to vote July 14 on a proposed contract that would put a Sheriff Department officer in charge of Eatonville’s police department temporarily.
Jason McGuire, the chief since 2012, has asked to return to regular patrol duty, Schaub said. He’s continuing as chief until the contract is approved by the council.
Jim Heishman, a lieutenant who oversees the Sheriff Department’s Mountain Detachment that’s based in part of the Town Hall building, would become interim chief of Eatonville’s three-officer department. Between now and end of 2014, town officials will decide whether to hire a full-time chief for the town or continue with a contract arrangement, Schaub said.
He also said there is plan to possibly receive all police service from the county.
Fire districts and departments that merge into a single entity to cover a larger area have become a trend in recent years. Large areas of Pierce County are served by agencies such as Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, in the Puyallup area, and South Pierce Fire and Rescue. The latter covers areas around Eatonville.