Fire chiefs like results of merger

Washougal councilors ask for hard data on cost savings before they’ll vote on extension

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Camas and Washougal fire officials painted a rosy picture of their temporary merger’s results during a recent Washougal City Council retreat. While, in general, the merger appears to be a hit, council members have questions they want answered before signing off on its extension.

Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart and his Washougal counterpart, Ron Schumacher, made presentations Jan. 7, highlighting how their six-month merger has cut overtime, bolstered staffing in each department and provided quicker service to east Clark County residents.

Swinhart and Schumacher are scheduled to make a similar presentation before the Camas City Council this month.

The two councils have until Feb. 20 to decide whether they support extending the temporary consolidation, which officially began Aug. 20. Swinhart, Schumacher and Washougal Mayor Sean Guard support an extension.

“Nothing in that presentation caused me to think we need to step back” on the consolidation, Guard said.

The chiefs, however, sought more time before asking for an extension in order to continue evaluating the deployment of staff and apparatus, among other things.

Washougal councilman Jon Russell, a supporter of the consolidation, stressed he wanted “hard data” on its financial ramifications before a council vote.

“I just think the presentation that was made was not the presentation I was hoping to see this late in the game,” Russell said Tuesday.

Mayor Pro-Tem Jennifer McDaniel agreed with Russell that more data were needed. She said she was “encouraged to learn the numbers were good,” but wanted to gather more information before deciding whether to support an extension.

Swinhart and Schumacher have committed to provide financial impact data to Washougal council members.

The fire chiefs also were asked how the merger impacted the EMS Fund shortfall.

In 2011, officials estimated the shortfall would be around $310,000 due to declining property taxes. Camas and Washougal residents, plus those living in unincorporated areas served by East County Fire and Rescue, pay into the EMS Fund.

Fire officials predicted the shortfall would be eliminated by the end of 2012, thanks to an improved economic forecast. Not everyone who attended the council retreat was so sure.

“I’m confident they’re headed in the right direction,” councilman Dave Shoemaker said Tuesday, “but I am concerned about the structural imbalance in the ambulance service and what it is doing to the budget.”

Contracting with American Medical Response has been discussed but does not appear to be in the cards, Shoemaker said. AMR is more practical in densely populated areas like Vancouver, he added, citing information provided to council members.

Fire officials are evaluating the EMS levy and billing revenue in anticipation of a levy request that could be on an August ballot, Swinhart said. The question they need to answer, he added, is whether the levy would generate enough money to support the system in 2013 and 2014.

“The answers we determine will lay the groundwork for the future sustainability of the fire department,” Swinhart said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.