In Our View: Merger Takes Shape

Fire departments in Camas, Washougal are considering temporary consolidation

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When extensively researched and carefully implemented, mergers of government agencies can produce improved service for constituents and valuable cost savings for taxpayers. One of the best local examples occurred 14 years ago.

In 1997 the parks departments for Clark County and Vancouver were merged into the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department, and it involved much more than a mere shifting of words. The new department is administered by the city, and the county oversees park services in unincorporated areas through an interlocal agreement. With old silos leveled, parks officials work more seamlessly, and the frequent question — “Is it city or county?” — has faded into oblivion.

Another merger is moving toward completion in the southeast corner of the county where city officials in Camas and Washougal are looking at combining fire departments. This proposal is especially innovative because it’s designed to be temporary. The collaborative effort would last for six months, allowing planners and budget writers to decide if a permanent consolidation would work.

Kudos to the city councils and fire departments in the respective cities for pursuing this plan. The temporary merger could occur as early as July 1.

Camas and Washougal are the closest of neighbors — sharing a boundary — and when the typically turbulent political and social forces that all communities experience are unleashed in this corner of the county, rivalries and neighborly disputes can erupt.

But when it comes to life-saving fire-protection services, leaders in Camas and Washougal have shown the willingness to work together. For many years, the Camas Fire Department has provided paramedic services to residents of Camas, Washougal and the East County Fire & Rescue district.

Considering the financial situation, they don’t really have much choice. The initial motivation for this merger was a $310,000 deficit in the EMS system. A consultant reported last week that significant savings might not be achieved through the temporary consolidation, but they won’t really know until they try. Earlier research revealed the possibility of saving $100,000 or more, partly through lower overtime costs. Other benefits could include enhanced service delivery.

The experimental merger makes sense as far as labor issues are concerned because firefighters in both cities are represented by the same union.

And it makes sense from a timing standpoint as new leadership moves into the Camas Fire Department. Nick Swinhart was recently hired as Camas’ new fire chief and the city council is expected to approve the move early next month. Swinhart comes to Camas from the chief’s post at the Watertown, S.D., Fire Department and earlier worked for the fire departments in three Washington cities: Aberdeen, Raymond and Olympia. He is current president of the South Dakota Fire Chiefs Association, and has experience with mergers; as a city councilor in South Dakota he helped organize the consolidation of eight fire departments.

In a recent Columbian story, Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said the temporary merger “is like taking the midterm test before getting to the final one.” That final test could mean permanent consolidation of the fire departments. It’s good to see leaders utilizing the right strategy: an extensively researched and carefully implemented plan.