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Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Emergency response was sticking point in Bothell annexation debate

Though voters rejected the city's annexation plan in November, the issue is likely to appear on the ballot again.

BOTHELL -- During Bothell's failed attempt this fall to annex a swath of unincorporated Snohomish County, much of the debate focused on public safety.
Would the city provide the same level of paramedic service as the fire districts serving unincorporated areas? Would the city adequately staff a fire station in the northwest of the proposed annexation area? Would the city lay off firefighters from the areas it hoped to take over?
Members of the pro- and anti-annexation camps alike are convinced the election turned on these questions, though taxes, local representation and many other issues were in play as well. Precinct data show many areas that already contract for Bothell's fire and emergency medical services voted against annexation. Many areas that annexation opponents claimed would suffer under city control voted "yes."
"It was more precinct-by-precinct and neighborhood-by-neighborhood," Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb said of the outcome. "I was surprised by that."
The election may be long over, but the issue is far from dead. Lamb said the city may seek to put a similar annexation proposal to voters as early as this year. Some people who want to join the city stand ready to help. A leader of a group formed to oppose the annexation, however, said Bothell would be wasting time and energy to try again so soon.
Had it succeeded, the expansion would have added to Bothell some 22,000 people and 5.6 square miles of land from unincorporated Snohomish County. Bothell, with about 33,000 people, straddles the boundary between King and Snohomish counties.
The city picked up an annexation effort that volunteer groups in unincorporated neighborhoods had been working on for more than a decade.
City leaders said their plan would not compromise fire or emergency medical service. Bothell offered voters lower property taxes and easier access to government services through City Hall. The city would have imposed a 5-6 percent tax on utilities.
Nearly all of the organized opposition to Bothell's annexation effort came from Fire District 1 and firefighter unions.
The proposed annexation area includes three fire districts: District 7 to the north and east; District 1 to the northwest and west; and District 10 to the north and west. Fire service would have remained the same in District 10, which has long contracted with Bothell for fire and emergency medical services.
The opposition group Citizens for Responsible Annexations raised $20,000 of its $21,890 for the campaign from the union for District 1 firefighters. Another $1,500 came from the union for District 7 firefighters. District 1's board of commissioners also passed a resolution opposing Bothell's annexation bid.
A pro-annexation group, Bothell Yes, also raised the majority of its money from labor groups. Of its $27,630 fund, $20,000 came from the Bothell Police Officers Guild and the Bothell Professional Firefighters Association. The political action committee for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, an AFSCME affiliate, chipped in another $5,000.
Voters in Nov. 8's general election opposed joining the city by about 53 percent to 47 percent. That put the "no" camp ahead by 408 votes out of 7,126 cast.
Mickie Gundersen, one of the earliest grass-roots annexation supporters, believes Fire District 1 and its unions obscured the real issues in the campaign by spreading misinformation. While there are valid reasons some people may have opposed annexation, she said, public safety is not among them.
Gundersen called Fire District 1 and its firefighters union disingenuous for "implying that people would lose their lives when all the while the issue for them is about losing the tax money they get from the annexation area."
In fact, she argued, people annexed into Bothell would receive better service from more highly trained personnel.
Bud NcCorchuk, a retired District 1 battalion chief who helped lead the "no" campaign, said there are legitimate safety issues to consider, such as the increased response time for paramedics to reach his neighborhood in the northwest portion of the proposed annexation area.
"The more we found out, the more we were convinced that Bothell was not ready to do this without dramatic cuts to services," NcCorchuk said. "If this comes up again, we're really well organized with our data."
He'd like to see Bothell wait at least a few years before bringing up the issue again. To try sooner would be a mistake, he said, "with the paint not even dry yet."
"Our organization is not really against annexation," NcCorchuk said. "It's just that the people in the middle of it just need to get a better deal from the cities."
Bothell city manager Bob Stowe said there are no concrete plans to pursue the annexation right away. The city first wants to study election results and gauge people's opinions of the city in the potential annexation area.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » BothellFireSnohomish County government

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