A volunteer shares a laugh with a girl during the city of Mercer Island’s Firehouse Munch event at the North Fire Station in 2017. Photo courtesy of Robert Stoneburner

A volunteer shares a laugh with a girl during the city of Mercer Island’s Firehouse Munch event at the North Fire Station in 2017. Photo courtesy of Robert Stoneburner

Firehouse Munch canceled as budget ax falls

With the failure of Proposition 1, Mercer Island cut numerous line items to balance the budget.

Dec. 7, 2018 tentatively marked the last time Mercer Island will host the Christmas Tree Lighting as the city makes cuts to balance the budget in the wake of the failure of Proposition 1 in November.

Along with the tree lighting, the annual Firehouse Munch has been discontinued and the local International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) chapter, which has hosted the event, says it is sad to see it go. Proposition 1, a levy lid lift, failed during the General Election with a 57.5 percent “No” vote. It would have maintained current service levels.

“It’s disappointing for us because it [gave] us an opportunity to interact on a more happy casual basis with the citizens,” said Lt. Ray Austin, the local IAFF union president. “A lot of times the only time we see people is during a crisis, during a very scary time for them, so being able to have some good times with the people, we like that.”

Currently, the city’s parks and recreation department is searching for third-party partners to potentially coordinate the Christmas Tree Lighting, Firehouse Munch and other events in the future.

“I hate to say that we’re cutting them because that’s really not the approach we’re taking,” said Ryan Daly, community and event center manager for parks and recreation. “The coordination aspect of the event is what we’re really struggling with, so we’re working with the community to see if anyone can step up to help us offer these [events] in the future.”

Daly added that parks and recreation is short-staffed and missing three key positions that coordinated special events.

“The events are what we love, they’re why we come to work, they’re the most fun [and] we get to see a direct within the community,” Daly said. “It’s such a positive for the residents of the Island and it’s something we want to continue. We don’t know how that’s going to look going forward, but we’re really excited to offer up some possibilities.”

The council unanimously passed the 2019-2020 budget on Dec. 4 and directed city manager Julie Underwood to seek additional cuts of about $1.2 million no later than June 2019.

“It almost feels like a vote of no confidence from the citizens,” Austin said, referring to the failure of Prop. 1. “They seem to think you can just keep cutting and cutting, but you can’t.”

The Dec. 4 city council meeting’s agenda bill noted that “there can be nothing sacred in terms of cuts and measures considered by the council because the projected deficits in 2021-2022 are significantly greater.”

At the meeting, councilmembers said the city is facing a fiscal cliff in 2020 and wanted to create a sustainable budget instead of relying on finite funding and reserves to balance the biennium.

“Just because one levy didn’t pass doesn’t mean another one can’t pass,” Councilmember Wendy Weiker said at the meeting.

The Firehouse Munch has been an annual opportunity for local firefighters, business owners and residents to interact as the holiday season solidifies. Local businesses set up numerous booths in the downtown fire station, serving treats and coffee.

In the past, firefighters would make the chili themselves but have switched to outsourcing the chili from local catering services. Typically, they order about 500 servings of chili and in previous years, the amount of leftovers has varied.

“It’s difficult to pull it all together and get it hot all at one time… so we buy it,” Austin said. “Sometimes we run out of chili in a short period of time and sometimes we have chili leftover that we eat for the next couple weeks.”

Austin added the IAFF Local 1762 will likely find other ways to interact with the community, but nothing like the Firehouse Munch.

“It’s real jovial,” Austin said. “It’s likely that we will do something else, but not that specifically. The union enjoys interacting with citizens so much that we will probably do something else instead.”

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