The future of East Pierce Fire & Rescue lies only a block away from the current headquarters and, while meeting a need identified need for the 152-mile district, has raised questions in the community.
In February, the fire commission board of directors approved a land purchase for a permanent department home, which will be on the corner of Main Street and Veteran’s Memorial Drive E. The headquarters cost the district $2.5 million, paid through commissioner-issued bonds out of the department’s regular operating budget, which is roughly $20 million.
This August, district voters are being asked to approve a , which would increase revenue for the department by about $2.5 million.
The owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay approximately approximately $95.00 in 2013, or $7.92 per month if the levy passes. The levy helps preserve staffing and training, which the department needs to maintain current response times and service levels.
In an interview with the Tacoma News Tribune, former Edgewood volunteer firefighter and chief Don Nelson criticized the department’s land purchase and said it hasn't done enough to save money before going to the ballot.
"The easy way out is to ask voters for additional dollars,” Nelson told the TNT.
Plans to develop the empty lot across the street from won’t materialize for what could be up to 10 years, but Fire Chief Jerry Thorson said the land purchase was a crucial investment for fire district and fit the needs identified in the East Pierce Capital Facilities plan for the next 20 years.
“We don’t have any plans to build a station right now, there is no funding for it,” said Thorson. “But it was one of the business opportunities that, even though times are tight right now, the board of commissioners felt would be worth the investment in the district’s future.”
Thorson said the location of the land was a draw – if the department headquarters moved even a mile away from it’s current spot, all of the district’s fire houses would have to be reevaluated because of the change in response time.
“Some may question the logic of purchasing land in tough times, but 5 years from now, that land might not be available or the price could rise dramatically,” said Thorson.
East Pierce Fire & Rescue struck a deal with the landowner to only pay interest on the property for the next few years. The cost to the district this year was $35,000, and then $65,000 annually for the next four years. After that, the district will pay the remaining principal.
Headquarters will house responding firefighters and department administrative offices. Plans also include space for public access meeting rooms.
“The overarching concept is a fire station and public gathering place, where the public can come interact with the firefighters and have access to meeting space,” said Thorson.
The new headquarters will not include a firefighter-training center, which the district still needs. Currently, firefighters use empty parking lots and commercial businesses for ladder and equipment training. Thorson said no property has been identified yet for a future East Pierce training center.
Currently, East Pierce shares a roof with the Bonney Lake Police Department at the on Veteran's Memorial Drive and rents the facilities from the City of Bonney Lake.
“The current building is not designed very well for firefighters to operate out of and there isn’t enough room for our current personnel and no room for growth,” said Thorson. “The city has made it very clear that they want us to move out at the end of our lease so they can expand the police department.”
East Pierce Fire & Rescue’s lease with Bonney Lake expires in 2015. Even with the land purchase, Thorson predicts the fire department will probably have to apply for a lease extension, since a voter bond in the next three years for a building a new headquarters is almost out of the question.
Thorson told Patch that the department plans to watch the economy closely and hopes to drop the operations levy and work on a voter bond, which may not happen for the next 10 years.