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Bremerton fire merger points south

The South Kitsap Fire and Rescue is Bremerton's fire district merger of choice, a city committee announced Wednesday.

Although the Bremerton City Council will have a say on the proposal this month, the public won't get a chance to vote this year.

The committee of firefighters and city officials announced its recommendation to the City Council at its study session. Assistant City Attorney Ken Bagwell and Bremerton Fire Chief Al Duke presented the committee's findings.

The recommendation calls for a six-month study to determine whether a consolidated fire department with South Kitsap makes financial sense, Bagwell said.

“South Kitsap reached out to us and made it very clear that they wanted to be a partner in this process,” he said.

The recommendation is another step forward in what has become a years-long process in deciding how to merge the Bremerton Fire Department, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue and South Kitsap Fire and Rescue into a regional fire authority.

The committee recommended South Kitsap because of the agreements already in place between the two fire districts in which Bremerton serves South Kitsap territories such as Navy Yard City, Bagwell said.

The Rocky Point peninsula in West Bremerton is also under South Kitsap's jurisdiction.

City officials said the recommendation was also influenced by a recent Bremerton firefighters' poll, in which firefighters voted four to one in favor of merging with South Kitsap.

"I think people felt like there was less of a culture shock at South Kitsap than at Central Kitsap," said Brian Viergutz, vice president of the Bremerton firefighters' union, pointing out the two district's service agreements and close proximity.

The committee's recommendation for a six-month analysis will come before the City Council Feb. 17. From there, the fire departments will develop a work plan on how to come together as one district. The move will ultimately hit the ballot for a public vote, but fire department and city officials say it's too early to tell when. One thing they do know is that it won't show up on the ballot in November.

City Councilman Adam Brockus, who sits on the committee, said merging with South Kitsap will boost the chances of getting a regional fire authority approved by voters because of the working relationship between the two departments and the wishes of the city's firefighters.

"We'll have a better likelihood of having a better plan going to the voters," he said.

The move to merge two districts came after a three-way West Sound Fire and Rescue movement collapsed last year.

"It was probably a bigger project than most people realized," Duke said, citing differences between the departments on finances and culture.

For example, the Bremerton Fire Department is paid for by the city, while the two fire districts are fueled by property taxes, said Ken Burdette, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue chief.

A new plan would have Bremerton consolidate with one fire and rescue before merging with the other. Central Kitsap and South Kitsap submitted consolidation proposals to the fire committee in December.

The Bremerton firefighters' poll also showed department members were deadlocked on whether they wanted to merge with a fire and rescue at all.

Many of the "no" votes came from firefighters who weren't necessarily opposed to the consolidation, but had questions about how the move would proceed, Viergutz said. Those questions included whether the fire departments would be able to maintain the same level of service or provide better service than before and whether residents would have to pay more taxes.

More firefighters won't get on board until the fact-finding analysis is underway, Viergutz said.

"Because there's such a dead heat, there's no momentum in the union right now," Viergutz said of the impasse over whether to consolidate.

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