Is the Fire Levy Really a Bragging Matter?

There are fewer projects, and they’re costing more, than was originally promised. That won’t stop Greg Nickels from hyping his plan on the campaign trail.

Mayors up for re-election naturally like to talk about their accomplishments rather than their setbacks, and one of Greg Nickels' notable achievements, he says, was getting voters to pass a $167 million fire department levy in 2003. It's a line he's hitting hard this election year.In February, for example, he announced the kickoff of 11 fire-station construction projects across the city. In April, he celebrated the beginning of construction of a station in Lake City and the completion of one at Northgate. In May, he announced the groundbreaking for a station at High Point. At each event or in his press announcements, the mayor pointed to the "$167 million" that was being used to build or upgrade 32 neighborhood fire stations and add new equipment.He uses the same language as a candidate for a third term (not to be confused, of course, with his official role as mayor). "In 2003," the mayor says under a list of "accomplishments" on his re-election Web site, "Mayor Nickels led the effort to pass the $167 million Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levy, which will bring the city's fire stations and equipment into the 21st Century."But as the mayor's own City Hall documents show, and officials confirm, Nickels is leaving out some disturbing realities about the fire department overhaul. Most important, its projected cost has soared more than $100 million beyond the original levy amount—to $282 million.There may be a good reason he's not bringing that up during campaign season. The $115 million increase still does not cover all the projects promised in the nine-year levy. Also, the construction timetable has been pushed back years, and some station rebuilds are no longer being funded.Progress is being made, with five firehouses now under construction. A major new fireboat is afloat, a new training center is operating, and the Northgate station, for one, was near enough to completion that the mayor could christen it. Nonetheless, in the six years since the approval of the levy—according to a May report prepared for the mayor by the Department of Fleets and Facilities—only one of the 32 firehouse projects called for in the levy has been fully completed: main Fire Station 10, just down Fourth Avenue from City Hall.The Fleets report, as well as documents from the City Council and the mayor's budget office, show that five firehouses remain in the bid phase, two are in pre-design status, and two are in temporary limbo.Work on three other firehouses has yet to begin due to a lack of federal grant money. Nine additional station projects have been deferred until 2011 "or later," the budget-office report states. Work on five more stations may not be scheduled until 2014.Two stations in this latter group no longer carry projected costs, according to the Fleets report, and have effectively been inactivated. Thus, as it stands, the project is not only costing taxpayers more, we'll get less.Fleets spokesperson Christina Faine, who noted she was also speaking for the mayor's office (which chose not to comment directly), says project costs have soared since 2003 due to rising construction prices, inflation, and add-ons. Though the mayor has widely used the $167 million figure since 2003, the actual starting cost of the project was $196 million—the levy plus $29 million from existing city funds and grants, something not made especially clear to voters. The price tag began growing immediately, and by 2006, with little public or press notice, the City Council at the mayor's request had to appropriate an additional $67 million in scheduled funding to cover increases.Since then, Faine says, costs have continued to rise while tax revenues have tumbled, affecting other city capital projects as well. The slide forced fire-levy planners to revise and delay projects—and in at least one instance, to move a station rebuild onto a back burner that could take years to be lit. That would be Station 20, a project that the mayor himself delayed ("Burning Down the House," SW, Aug. 9, 2006).Station 20, built in 1949 on the west slope of Queen Anne Hill, is so small that one firefighter must sleep in the kitchen. The city had originally budgeted $6.3 million for its replacement, but in 2006, neighbors objected to the mayor's idea of razing three nearby homes as part of the expansion, saying there were better sites nearby.By a narrow vote, the City Council sided with the neighbors and rejected the mayor's plan. (A consultant later hired by the council gave a thumbs-down to the mayor's claim that the current Station 20 property was the "only available site," saying there was a better one down the street—and the city already owned the land.)After the council's rejection, a miffed mayor sent those neighbors a note saying they would just have to wait for a new firehouse. Stations in other neighborhoods would "move up in priority and will be rebuilt sooner," he said. "If the greater Queen Anne community wishes to reconsider this decision, and the City Council indicates a willingness to act, a new Fire Station 20 will proceed."To some, that sounded like the revenge that Nickels is sometimes feared for. Today, although Fleets and Facilities says the station long ago reached the end of its useful building life, the project is no longer funded, and, unlike other firehouses on the Fleets rebuild chart, doesn't carry start and completion dates.Council member Tim Burgess, a Queen Anne resident, is seeking to reverse that, pushing for a new firehouse on the site the mayor said wouldn't work—at Interbay Golf Course, on city-owned land."Station 20 will be built," Burgess vowed last week. "We are nearing a final decision about when and where." Still, any decision will likely need the mayor's affirmation.We asked Burgess, chair of the council's public-safety committee and a potential future mayoral candidate, if he might look deeper into the levy program overruns and determine who and what caused them.In fact, he says, "My office is reviewing many of these questions and issues right now."

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