Audit: Fire District 5 violated state law

District officials once again dispute state's familiar audit finding

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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For a third straight audit, the Washington State Auditor's Office has chided Clark County Fire Protection District 5 for using public money on training activities that it considers to be outside the district's legal authority.

And once again, District 5 officials say they disagree with the auditor's report and have no plans to change how they do business.

Findings from the accountability report, released Monday, allege the fire district's Northwest Regional Training Center violates state law by spending property tax revenue on training programs that are not directly related to fire suppression or emergency medical services.

Fire districts frequently train firefighters and provide community programs, such as first aid and CPR classes. But District 5 uses public money on classes that stretch the state's definition of what's allowed, the report says, including classes on forklift operations, defensive driving and load rigging for cranes.

"We recommend the district perform only training activities that are within its legal authority," the audit report said. "We further recommend the district not use public dollars to support unallowable training activities."

The problem, according to the auditor's office, is that the fire district's occupational safety program serves some employees who work for private companies or governments outside the taxing district. While the district has worked to make the training program self-supporting in recent years, it continues to use public money to make ends meet, the auditor's office says.

The cost of operating the training center exceeded the revenues it generated by more than $300,000 in each of the past two years, the report says.

Officials with District 5 disagreed with the report's premise and disputed some of the dollar amounts. In a response to the audit, the fire district said the training programs furthered its mission by cutting down on fire and medical calls and claimed the report didn't take into consideration rent the district receives from a building it owns and leases to businesses in the Orchards area, located at 11606 N.E. 66th St.

Ultimately, the dispute comes down to a disagreement in legal opinions, according to Dave Vial, the fire district's administrator.

"This is simply a difference in opinion by the attorneys," he said. "It's our opinion that we haven't violated any laws."

District 5 says the auditor's office is placing an "artificial" limitation on the district's ability to protect life and property. The district has no plans to change the training courses offered, Vial said.

It's up to the district whether it decides to ignore the report's findings, said Thomas Shapley, a spokesman for the auditor's office.

"We are a reporting agency," he said. "We look at the records and documents, compare them to our knowledge of rules, where we see a conflict, and note it. We don't have enforcement powers."

The agency releases its accountability reports to provide information to constituents and bond holders, Shapley said, who may have the power to ask for changes.

Fire District 5 does not answer calls for fires or medical services. Instead, it contracts with the Vancouver Fire Department to handle its calls. In return, the city contracts with the fire district to provide fire prevention services, primarily through training. The district, covering 42 square miles and 80,000 people, levies about $9 million annually in property taxes.