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Underfunded, overtaxed 1st responders seek options with County Commissioners

By: C&K Trowbridge

The Cafeteria at Connell Elementary was quickly filled with first responders as the Franklin County Commissioners held a special meeting to discuss Fire and Emergency Services availability on Thursday, Feb. 23. Interim County Administrator, Davidson gave background sharing:

As the county looked into areas of need for ARPA funding, they became aware of a situation in Fire District 2. It appears the district lost their credentials and no longer has an ambulance to provide services to the area. So, the county started to inquire from the standpoint - maybe the county could help coordinate something to help with the situation.

While a mutual aid agreement is in place to provide services and good work is being done as the Hospital and Fire District’s work together, Fire District 3 is the one mainly responding to the area to attend to a lot of those calls. With Palouse Falls there have been some major issues that need EMS services. The road that commutes to WSU also goes through that area which also poses a risk with all the students traveling through the district.

The county was also made aware that the number of ambulance calls to Coyote Ridge Corrections Center by Hospital District 1 are far more than initially anticipated when the facility opened. The county reached out to legislators to approach them on both of these state issues. First, for additional funding for CRCC and secondly, to set up a dedicated fund through the state parks to cover expenses of servicing Palouse Falls. Initially the Department of Corrections pushed back, but once Connell Fire Chief Ken Woffenden found the initial documents quoting there would be one to two calls per month and they are responding to 2.5 calls per week, the situation became more doable.

Chief Woffenden stated, “We’re hoping for an ongoing assessment from DOC. The governor is turning it into a geriatric facility, sending older prisoners there which will only create more of a response for us.”

State Parks has a biennial budget, as Davidson stated, it is “not promising” this year. The county is asking for $100,000 as the “history of calls really justifies that”.

Chief Mike Harris, Fire District 3, walked the audience and commissioners through the option of an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy. He was suggesting a county wide levy at 40 to 50 cents per 1,000 of evaluation.

The county is at 96,749 population and is growing fast with the City of Pasco at 77,108 according to the 2021 census data. These numbers are another piece of the issue in providing services.

Harris stated Franklin County is one of three in the 39 Washington Counties that does not conduct an EMS Levy. The other two contract private ambulance services. In those 39 counties, there are 184 EMS levies at an average of 39 cents/1,000.

The county sits at $3 billion of assessed valuation with the city of Pasco at $8 billion which could bring in over $5 million annually at 50 cents/1,000. Harris proceeded to break down the costs from administration to funding for each district. However, one concern is that Pasco already has a levy and that by joining the county they would lose $1.5 million, a cost they can’t afford, according to Fire Chief Gear.

Commissioner Brad Peck asked to take Pasco out of it to allow them to continue as they are. Peck also asked for the districts to make a list of their priorities/needs and what the costs are.

Commissioner Chair, Clint Didier, expressed how these “volunteer” first responders are fatigued and expressed “there is definitely a needed entity out here in Franklin County.”

Commissioner Rocky Mullen looked at the numbers stating, “In Franklin County Fire District 2, $27,000 is not gonna solve our issue out there.” He went on to discuss the assessed value vs call volume and how most who come to Palouse Falls don’t live within the district. Peck agreed with Mullen that it isn’t enough for those with a lower tax base.

Pasco Fire Chief Gear added that the north county has hit that burn out rate and needs support. His department is supportive in providing assistance.

Brian Cochran, Fire District 2, agreed that $27,000 is not going to solve the problem. The distance and time to get services out there, with MedStar being called in everytime to the Falls, Cooper suggested promoting MedStar versus more ambulance services. However, it was stated to the FCG that EMS services must make the call for MedStar to come, so they are still needed.

Chief Steve Cooper, Fire District 4, reminded the commissioners of the importance of the mutual aid agreement even when considering funding options.

Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Marcus, expressed, “The greatest need is in two areas of the county that are not tax payers of the county - Palouse Falls (non-residents) and CRCC (Non-tax payers from other parts of the state).”

Didier stated that when he spoke to the volunteers, they had been adamant that they would not deny anyone services. Didier said, “They are getting fatigued, depleting their resources. We need a solution, people. We see a problem and we’re trying to resolve it.”

Cooper stated, “Our pool to pick from for volunteers is pretty small. We’re pretty fortunate that we’re getting some younger folks but once those volunteers are gone, they are gone.” He added that even if they were fortunate enough to get some paid staff, they would still need volunteers.

Franklin County Fire District 2 Co-Chief, Scott Moore shared, “We are very conservative with what we do out there without money, all of us work together in Franklin County and we’re here to help each other.” He went on to speak of the “bad terrain” that they deal with as well as older equipment that they store on their own property because the facility is not adequate and are able to keep running thanks to farmers who are also mechanics. They are looking for grants, but don’t have the tax base. Moore emphasized that the state is getting money, per head, for Palouse Falls and that the first responders will work together; they just need the support.

The commissioners expressed appreciation to all the volunteers who serve the county.

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