Camas, Washougal to get report on fire merger plans

Cities' options will include joining departments permanently

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A long-in-the-works plan to permanently merge the Washougal and Camas fire departments will take a step forward later in the month with the release of a financial assessment that will look at the top three options the cities could take to restructure fire protection.

Consultant Paul Lewis will present his findings at a Jan. 29 special meeting of the regional fire authority committee. His report will be the next major step in a process dating back to 2010.

"This is pretty substantial," said Nick Swinhart, fire chief for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department. "It will likely impact which direction we go in."

He said a financial feasibility report will lay the groundwork for a decision on whether to merge the departments in the coming months, and if so, how to do that.

The three options the report will look are permanently merging the fire departments, creating a regional fire authority or not combining services at all.

For more than a year, the two fire departments have been operating as one.

Last year, the cities agreed to extend a six-month temporary merger through Dec. 31, 2013. Washougal and Camas will have until then to choose which plan they'd like to implement, or they could agree on another extension.

The regional fire authority committee has evaluated the pros and cons of creating a fire authority, which would create a taxing district independent of the cities.

City leaders say they want to look at every option before deciding.

Mayors weigh in

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said he was skeptical of some of the options on the table.

"No one has explained to me why (a regional fire authority) is the most wonderful thing in the world," he said.

A regional fire authority would ultimately need voter approval to be established. It would have the ability to levy taxes as a separate entity and city employees working for the fire department would become district employees.

Guard said he's leaning toward the option of keeping the departments merged.

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins echoed those sentiments but said he's willing to keep an open mind about what's presented in Lewis' report.

He said he'd be willing to pursue whichever option indicates the best savings for the fire department.

"I'm not excited about going back to business as usual," Higgins said.

Since going into effect, the temporary merger has saved both cities money.

At a Washougal City Council meeting last February, Ron Schumacher, division chief, said Washougal had seen overtime savings of $13,970 over four months.

The merger has doubled manpower in Washougal and provided a paramedic unit there, Swinhart said. It has also stabilized EMS funds in Camas, he said.

Tyler Graf:360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.