Candidates for this year’s Bellevue City Council election have tackled many issues in their campaigns and public forums. Public safety has been one of the more contentious topics to arise, and has put incumbent Kevin Wallace on the defensive after losing his endorsement from the local firefighters union.
Wallace had been endorsed by the Bellevue Firefighters Local IAFF 1604 in his first bid for City Council in 2009, but union vice president Keith Allen said Wallace and other council members allowing budget cuts to the department last year caused the union to side with Wallace’s Position 4 opponent, Steve Kasner.
“Kevin has done the exact opposite of everything that he told us he would work toward doing,” said Allen. “In fact, we are in far worse shape than we were when Kevin took office.”
Bellevue Fire Chief Michael Eisner said the council had approved the eight positions to staff a ladder truck at Station One, but the loss of those positions through attrition meant shutting down an engine company at the Wilburton-Woodridge station and moving a ladder truck there from Bellevue Way South.
“The impact has been minimal,” Eisner said, “so, our response times have been within a couple seconds of what they were before.”
Allen said Wallace failed in his pledged commitment to public safety through his actions on the council, which meant going with Kasner following a vetting process of all candidates.
“Through that process it was evident to us,” he said, “there was no question through our executive board process, we had unanimous endorsements for Steve Kasner.”
But the process was muddled, said Doug Halbert, a firefighter and member of the union’s governmental affairs committee. The committee had agreed not to endorse Wallace, he said, but also agreed not to endorse his opponent.
When the primary results came back with Wallace leading by just 4 percent, that’s when Allen went to the union’s executive board to approve backing Kasner without first holding a governmental affairs committee meeting, said Halbert.
“I think it’s a partisan attack,” Wallace said of the union endorsement going to Kasner. “They are union Democrats, and they are looking to attack anyone who is not. Conrad Lee, Don Davidson and I all fall into that category, so they’re going to support people who will do what my candidate has already said.” Wallace has frequently cited an event where his opponent promised to be a “tsunami” to wipe out conservative leadership in Bellevue.
Position 6 candidate Lynne Robinson also received a union endorsement, but Mayor Conrad Lee did not, nor did his Position 2 opponent Lyndon Heywood.
“What we really like about Lynne was the amount of time and connection that she has with the community,” Allen said. “She also is very connected with the elderly population and that’s a big piece of our consumer base, if you will.”
Wallace said he continues to be a proponent of public safety, but at the time of the budget cuts there had been no communications from the fire chief or union opposing them.
“I don’t believe we could have done it without raising tax rates,” he said of sparing the budget, “but at the time the fire chief was not requesting it. … And the union at the time wasn’t saying anything either.”
The councilor also points out the fire department’s budget has grown by 51 percent from 2007-08 to 2013-14, and there is $1.2 billion in revenue for the biennium budget.
“We have plenty of money to spend, but we just have to prioritize our budget as we’ve done for the past four years,” Wallace said. “Revenues are continuing to increase in the city.”
Halbert said Wallace also contacted the union about two weeks ago regarding higher revenues than expected for the city, and calling for a meeting later this month to discuss restoring fire department staffing.
Eisner said any request he makes to the City Council for a restoration or addition to staffing will be based on assessments of response times, measures of successful emergency calls and other auditing measures that may call for more resources.
“We didn’t say to ourselves, ‘In 2014, we need two more people,'” said the fire chief. “We were going to let performance levels determine what staffing levels we need.”
A long-term facilities study also is being conducted to address rapid population growth and development and how the fire department can best prepare for responding to fire and medical emergencies in the future.
“We have every confidence we can tackle fire and EMS today,” Eisner said, “but what’s coming around the corner?”
Allen said there have been two such studies conducted in the past, which supported locating a fire station in downtown Bellevue.
“I would be really floored if it came back and said anything different.”