County fire districts in negotiation to move fire marshal from SJ to Orcas

The San Juan County fire districts are proposing to move the office of county fire marshal from San Juan to Orcas through changes to the county’s interlocal fire marshal agreement.

Orcas Fire District commissioners say the step will help ensure that Orcas Fire is paid for the fire marshal services it supplies to residents of other islands.

“Our impetus is to protect our citizens and ourselves,” said Commissioner Clyde Duke of supporting the fire marshal program, which monitors buildings’ fire safety and lowers insurance costs for residents. “The challenge is bearing the cost and the liability. I’m not comfortable with us underwriting San Juan County... I don’t think it’s fair for our taxpayers to have that burden.”

The office of fire marshal is a government entity completely separate from any of the local fire districts, and is legally required to be provided by the county.

Because the county’s fire districts wanted more fire marshal oversight than the county was providing, in 2006 they collectively asked the county to delegate its fire marshal authority to them under an interlocal agreement.

The fire marshal office is now seated on San Juan, and Fire Chief Steve Marler carries the title of county fire marshal. San Juan receives all payments for inspection and burn permit fees; but fire marshal inspections are currently provided by Orcas Fire through its employee, Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Turner.

Orcas has not been paid for services for 18 months

At a recent Orcas fire commissioners’ meeting it was announced that Orcas has not received any payment from San Juan Fire for fire marshal inspection services provided by Turner on San Juan for the past 18 months. Harris says he doesn’t know why.

“We thought we had essentially a gentleman’s agreement,” said Orcas Fire Chief Mike Harris. “Orcas has been footing everything — doing all the work and paying the guy to do it, and it’s rubbing my commissioners absolutely the wrong way.”

Under the 2006 interlocal agreement, each district paid a certain share of annual cost overruns left by the gap between salary paid and fees generated.

Turner became deputy fire marshal when Fire Marshal Bob Low left in 2010, and due to Turner’s lower salary, there is now no annual shortfall.

“We’re certainly not operating at a deficit anymore,” Marler said. “Orcas fire did bill us roughly $44,000 for Paul for the last previous budget year... It’s roughly equal to what San Juan has taken in. The amount is not in dispute.”

San Juan Fire board chair Albert Olson said the bill was not received until February or March of 2011, but the state auditor requires that all previous year’s bills be paid by January.

“Orcas will get reimbursed for their costs, we just have to figure out how to do it without getting in trouble with the auditor,” Marler said.

While San Juan county does not provide any cash to support the program, “My opinion is, the county is funding it through the fees the county has authorized that the fire marshal is collecting,” said Chief Building Department Official Rene Beliveau.

Under the proposed arrangement, Orcas Island would be designated the “lead entity” for the fire marshal office, and would host the office on Orcas, directly taking in payments for services it provides.

“It just makes sense to all of us that Orcas fire should be the lead agency, because outside the Town of Friday Harbor, the majority of business properties are on Orcas,” said Marler.

“I personally feel Orcas should be the lead agency with the county, not Fire District 3,” added Olson.

Turner could be appointed the sole fire marshal for the county; Marler is currently in the midst of overseeing a new arrangement for San Juan Island Fire to provide fire protection services to the Town of Friday Harbor, and said he's more than ready to pass the full fire marshal title off to Turner, which he “grudgingly assumed” when Low left the county.

He said he will continue to remain available on San Juan Island to consult with building officials as needed, adding, “I don't see anything that would increase the cost of offering the service ... It really is an administrative change rather than a financial change.”

Marler said there is “enough inherent expertise” between the four fire departments to do the job, and hopes it will result in a more streamlined fire marshal office that is able to be more responsive to the community. Lopez Island chief Jim Ghiglione is able to supply arson investigation experience when it is needed.

“We would still be looking at outside agencies [like] the Arson Task Force,” said Turner.

The Town of Friday Harbor is required to maintain its own fire marshal, and will not participate in the new interlocal agreement.

The proposed agreement has yet to be finalized, and must be approved by all four districts and the county council in order to take effect.


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