By Pat Jenkins

The Dispatch

On a freezing-cold night, some Eatonville residents turned out for a dose of reality on the hot-button issue of fire protection and emergency medical services.

A town hall-style meeting Dec. 20 was called by town and South Pierce Fire and Rescue officials for a discussion of the manpower and financial limitations on the availability of firefighters and paramedics.

South Pierce manages the town’s fire and emergency medical (EMS) services under a five-year contract that started in 2016 and next year will pay the fire district $435,000. That’s half of the approximate annual cost of $1.2 million to pay for having a minimum of two fulltime firefighters on duty 24 hours a day in Eatonville.

The town can’t afford that, which is why it stopped running its own fire department and contracted with the district, Mayor Mike Schaub reminded the dozens of people attending the meeting at Eatonville Community Center.

South Pierce also can’t afford, with its current funding from the town and taxpayers in the district, to fully staff Eatonville’s fire station and the district’s stations, said fire chief Lloyd Galey. That, he added, is where volunteer firefighters can be a big help.

The district is trying to bolster the ranks of volunteers. Last summer, 50 people responded to the district’s call for volunteers, but more are needed, both for the district and the town, Galey said. For Eatonville, that would make it easier to have the town’s fire station manned around the clock with a combination of volunteer and fulltime firefighters instead of a current staffing situation that results in the station being unmanned a few days each month. That requires responses to any in-town fires and medical emergencies to come from fire district stations, which might not always be fast enough, Galey said.

Schaub noted Eatonville is so isolated compared to other municipalities that even if it had 24/7 staffing, it would still need South Pierce or other fire districts for backup “when our unit was out on a call.”

Galey said South Pierce has a similar problem. If anyone assigned to the six two-man shifts at its stations “call in sick,” the district must bring in off-shift personnel and pay overtime, he said. In September and October alone this year, overtime totaled about $90,000, he added.

“We’re spread too thin. We don’t have enough people to cover everything,” Galey said.

In addition to managing Eatonville's service, South Pierce serves an area of approximately 140 square miles that has a combined population of about 25,000 people in the Roy, Lacamas, Clear Lake, Harts Lake and McKenna areas.

When he was hired by the district’s commissioners a year ago, South Pierce had a $150,000 budget shortfall. The district’s finances have improved, but “the goal is to get our budget healthy and hire more people,” Galey said. “We have to survive financially so we can meet our expenses and be there for the public.”

Schaub said town and district officials will schedule more public meetings to talk about possible solutions to the funding and manpower issues. Some approaches tried in recent years include:

• In 2016, discussions of annexing the town into the district stalled. The Town Council formally requested the district’s commissioners to consider scheduling an annexation election, but Galey asked for time to analyze that and other factors for the district and Eatonville while also addressing the budget issues. If annexed, Eatonville and its tax revenue that pays for fire protection and EMS and covers its contract with South Pierce would flow directly to the district.

• In 2014, his first year as mayor, Schaub laid off the town’s fire chief and gave those duties to the South Pierce administration to save money on administrative costs. The council approved the contract for fire fire and EMS the following year.

• And in 2012, voters in Eatonville rejected a public safety levy that would have generated property tax revenue for the then-town-operated fire department. Property would have been taxed $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Three fire commissioners (John Christian, Kevin Kneeshaw and Jody Westing) and three Town Council members (Jenniei Hannah, Bill Dunn and Robert Thomas) attended last week's meeting in what officials described as a show of unity in working to strengthen fire services.

“We’re in this together,” Daley said.