Hospital district works toward merger amid seat changes

With an almost entirely new board of public hospital district commissioners, the outgoing group prepares for the incoming to take a leap into fire and emergency medical services integration.

“It takes a year and a half to get up to speed. We’re going to have a new board and it’s going to be trying to get up to speed with all kinds of things,” Commissioner Warren Appleton said during an Oct. 21 special meeting. “And this big thing is going to be going through the snake to be digested as they’re trying to get up to speed. So I’m trying to make it easy for them.”

At the district’s Oct. 23 regular meeting, members of the public both commented for and against a motion to approve the pending interlocal agreement. No decision was made during that meeting but a mid-November special meeting was discussed; watch the Journal for updates on that meeting’s schedule.

“This has dragged on for several years,” community member Jim Kynch said. “There is not going to be a single instance of someone saying, “This isn’t a good idea.’”

In April, a Citizen’s Advisory Group concluded in its 117-page report that the two entities should integrate into one within the next two years. The five members of the CAG were selected by San Juan Island Fire and Rescue, San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services and the Town of Friday Harbor in April 2018 to consider the merger.

Benefits of a merger, according to the CAG recommendation document, include improved response times; enhanced depth of volunteer resources; a unified command structure; simplified levy management; various financial benefits, including a reduction in staff numbers between the two organizations and reduction in duplication in administrative duties; and unified training opportunities.

Following the CAG’s recommendation, an implementation task force — comprised of Fire Chief Norlin Collins; EMS Interim Chief Karl Kuetzing; PHD Commissioner Rebecca Smith; Town Administrator Duncan Wilson; and Fire Commissioner Frank Cardinale — worked from April until September toward the goal of integration. A draft Interlock Agreement between EMS and Fire was created with the intention of combining the administrative duties of both entities into one prior to a full-merger, which is expected to occur following a funding vote next fall or the following.

For more than 20 years, fire and EMS have been two separate agencies on San Juan Island. The districts for both are different. While EMS provides services on San Juan Island, as well as Brown, Henry, Pearl, Spieden, Johns and Stuart islands, the fire department only provides to San Juan, Brown and Pearl Islands. Friday Harbor is contracted with the fire district and therefore it isn’t included in the district’s property tax levy, it is paid for by part of the town’s property taxes. Annexation would require a vote to increase funding mechanisms which will likely be on the ballot in 2020; options include a levy lift for the fire district or starting an EMS levy under the fire district. According to the CAG report, the existing EMS levy could be retired by the public hospital district board. This would have to be done before the fire district could start collecting an EMS levy.

“A simple lid lift of the Fire levy is clearly the more straightforward approach as there is currently ample headroom under the Fire District’s levy cap,” CAG members said in the report — a levy amount was not included in the group’s suggestions.