Fire officials propose temporary merger

Pilot effort between Washougal, Camas would reduce shortfall

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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CAMAS — The Camas and Washougal fire departments could soon become one, albeit for a temporary period.

Officials from both departments told members of Camas and Washougal’s councils that a six-month merger would lower a projected $310,000 budget shortfall for emergency medical services. It would also show if and how a discussed permanent merger would work between the two departments, fire officials said.

Council members did not vote on the proposal Monday. City government officials said such a vote would likely not happen until early May. But officials with both cities said the temporary merger proposal was significant.

“It’s a huge step for the two communities to work together as one unit,” acting Camas Fire Chief Monte Brachmann said after the meeting. Camas is looking to hire a full-time fire chief by the end of May.

“It gives us time to see if consolidation is the answer,” Camas Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Higgins added. “I sensed everyone’s aware of the problem and doing nothing is not an option. We have to do something.”

Monday’s meeting at the Camas Library included presentations by Brachmann and Washougal Fire Chief Ron Schumacher outlining four possible options for reducing the deficit. The shortage stems from drastically reduced property tax revenue, they said.

None of the options would fill the hole facing the EMS Fund. The remaining deficit would be paid through cutbacks in overtime pay and EMS fund reserve money, officials said.

As part of a decades-old agreement, the Camas Fire Department provides paramedic services to residents in Camas and Washougal, plus those living in the East County Fire & Rescue district in parts of unincorporated Clark County. Residents pay a property-tax levy for these services.

“If we don’t have reserves at the end of this year, we’re looking at 2012 being as bad or worse as this year,” Brachmann told the joint council. “So we’re looking at being in worse shape if we don’t do something now.”

Multiple council members questioned whether any of the proposals would prevent a similar shortage, and subsequently a similar meeting, from happening next year.

“What in this solution precludes us from being here a year from now talking about a short-term stopgap to the same problem?” Washougal council member Dave Shoemaker asked Washougal City Administrator Dave Scott.

“You’ve captured the dilemma we have and the problem we face,” Scott replied, noting work addressing the shortfall would continue into 2012 and beyond.

The options presented at the meeting are listed below with projected six-month savings:

• Option 1: Two firefighter/paramedic positions are cut from Station 172 on 39th Street and Evergreen Highway in Washougal, potentially saving $106,798.

• Option 2: Washougal deposits $150,000 into the EMS Fund and the Camas Fire Department reduces discretionary leave, potentially saving $160,404.

• Option 3: Washougal provides one firefighter/IV technician for one of three shifts at Station 172 and transfers $95,000 to the EMS Fund, potentially saving $115,808.

• Option 4: Washougal provides one firefighter/IV technician for one of three ambulance shifts and the ambulance is stationed at Station 171 in downtown Washougal. Washougal transfers $95,000 to the EMS fund. Also, the two cities agree to partner on a trial basis in regard to firefighters, paramedics, captains and battalion chiefs, saving $115,808.

The fourth option also provides for Camas’ three battalion chiefs — they alternate 24-hour shifts — to respond to Washougal calls at the same level as they would for Camas calls, Washougal to pay to rebuild the “out of service” ambulance and a lower number of Camas personnel on discretionary leave per shift.

The fourth option would cost Washougal $150,000, including $55,000 for the firefighter/IV technician, officials said.

Brachmann and Schumacher each supported the merger and asked the councils to consider it. The remaining shortfall would still be more than $194,000.

“The biggest thing is how does this impact both communities,” Schumacher said. “Having an ambulance in the city limits of Washougal is a big consideration.”

His counterpart, Brachmann, noted that regardless of whether there is an ambulance in a given station, such as 172, someone will ultimately have to field and respond to emergency calls. Both fire chiefs rejected Option 1 because they believed it would affect services too significantly.

The ultimate decision on which option to choose, if any, will take careful consideration, officials said.

“We have tough choices to make,” said Rod Morris, a Washougal council member and volunteer firefighter. “Taxpayers are accustomed to a certain level of service. It may be something we can’t maintain.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, or ray.legendre @col_smallcities