Audit chides Fire District 5 over training funds

Auditor's office, fire officials disagree on law's view of center

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

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The Washington State Auditor's Office alleges Clark County Fire District 5 is continuing to use public money to pay for training activities outside its legal authority.

The finding is nothing new: the auditor's office says it has reported the problem in the past five audits.

"State law authorizes fire districts to provide training only to protect life and property as it relates to emergency medical services or prevention or suppression of fire," the new report said.

The problem, according to the audit, is that District 5 also offers occupational safety training for facilities and maintenance, construction and public works employees. Those classes include backhoe safety, flagging, forklift training, pilot escort vehicle certification, electrical safety, crane safety and defensive driving.

"The District obtained legal guidance from its attorney stating the training center could offer expanded curriculum designed to prevent emergencies," the report said. "However, we disagree and believe the training must be related to emergency medical services or prevention or suppression of fire in order for it to be within the District's legal authority."

The auditor's office says the district has been working to make the training center self-supporting, but it continues to need public money to support it. It recommends the district only offer training classes within its authority and that it not use public money to support "unallowable training activities."

The district disagrees with the finding, saying the auditor's office is relying on "flawed advice" from its legal counsel.

"The Audit finding claims, without citing any authority, that any exercise of the power to protect life and property must be related 'to emergency medical services or prevention or suppression of fire,'" the district wrote in a response. "Neither the statutory language, nor other legal authorities support the Auditor's artificial limitation of the power to protect life and property."

This is a case of a difference in legal opinions, said Dave Vial, fire district administrator. The district board will continue to look at the issue and may look at a legislative change, but thinks it is in the right, he said.

"The classes in question are mutually beneficial for the District and the governmental entities who participate, and show how local governments can work together to save taxpayer dollars," the district wrote in its response. "We believe that discontinuing these programs would negatively impact those other governments and therefore the public at large."

Teaching the classes ultimately reduces the number of calls that a fire department would respond to, Vial said.

Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the Washington State Auditor's Office, said her organization is a reporting agency, not an enforcement one. It doesn't force agencies to take action after a report. It's up to the individual agencies to decide what to do after an audit report is issued.

The district has been in a contract with the city of Vancouver to provide fire prevention, fire suppression and emergency services since 1994. It covers about 80,000 people in a 42-square-mile area including Orchards, Sifton, Proebstel, Barberton, Heritage, Walnut Grove, St. Johns, Pleasant Valley, Five Corners, Glenwood and Minnehaha. Its training center is at 11606 N.E. 66th St. in Orchards.