In our view: Cutting Costs

Local governments react to Great Recession; different strategies are necessary

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Some strategies in response to the Great Recession fall in the category of “Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!” Others are more like, “Well, gosh! Guess we have to hunker down and do the best we can with what we’ve got left.”

A good example of the first is the recent decision by three fire departments to consolidate their training programs for a combined savings of $300,000. Such a tactic — relying on economies of scale — should apply in all economic conditions, and it’s good to see savings reinvested in other fire-protection services and programs that have been put at risk during the all-too-slow economic recovery.

And a good example of the second category is the decision by Clark County officials to do away with lifeguards at Klineline Pond and eliminate maintenance and parking lot access at 10 regional parks, boat launches and trailheads. This tactic is not new; it was implemented in 2010. We only bring it up now because, as summer weather arrives, patrons of Klineline Pond and the other facilities should remind themselves that extra caution is needed as parks officials impose disappointing but necessary cost-cutting measures.

Forward-thinking and revenue-challenged officials at Clark County Fire & Rescue, Clark County Fire District 6 and Vancouver Fire Department are commended for the merging of training programs. Two factors triggered the change: a recommendation in a consultant’s report, plus vacancies in two of the three training chiefs’ positions.

The third of those jobs belongs to Mike Ciraulo, training division chief for Clark County Fire & Rescue. An excellent manifestation of the strength-in-mergers concept has occurred in recent weeks. As Marissa Harshman reported in Monday’s Columbian, about 250 firefighters received advanced “auto extraction” training at Metro Metals Northwest in Vancouver. Using 100 old vehicles provided by the scrap metal company, the firefighters were able to tear apart the vehicles with extraction tools, polishing their skills for rescue work at accident sites.

This merger is not a direct response to the worst point in the Great Recession. As early as 2008, the three agencies were pondering possible savings and hired the consultant. But the timing sure makes consolidation even more appropriate. Instead of three training-division chiefs, 12 training captains and several administrative assistants, the consolidated program now has one training chief, eight captains and one person handling the combined administrative work.

And there’s this advantage: Firefighters and paramedics now are becoming more thoroughly trained in a wider assortment of topics. As seen in the example presented in Harshman’s story, in pre-merger days rural fire districts had more training in wildland fires. Now that expertise is spread across a wider spectrum of fire district personnel.

As for the 2009 changes in the parks department — the removal of lifeguards from Klineline Pond and the elimination of maintenance and parking lot access at 10 regional facilities — we hope these impacts can be more a suspension of efforts rather than elimination. As the recovery accelerates (we hope), perhaps the changes can be reversed and these key components of the parks department can be re-instituted.

An economic crisis, painful as it is, carries the benefit of forced austerity. How well government agencies — such as fire departments and parks departments — respond to that crisis helps determine how nimble, innovative and aggressive those agencies can be. As the dust clears, taxpayers can witness the better use of their dollars.