Consultant recommends merger for Washougal, Camas fire departments

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

Updated: January 30, 2013, 8:04 PM

 

Of the three options available, implementing a long-term partnership between the Washougal and Camas fire departments would likely save the cities money, according to a consultant’s report released Tuesday night.

But as the cities continue to wrestle with the nearly two-year-long question of whether to consolidate fire and EMS services permanently, the consultant tasked with reviewing what’s next for the fire departments said no option is a clear winner.

The regional fire authority committee, composed of members of both city councils, will soon recommend whether to combine the fire departments, create a new autonomous taxing district to oversee fire services or keep the departments separate.

Paul Lewis, the cities’ consultant, said none of the three options would generate “significant” savings. However, a long-term consolidation of the departments would be slightly less expensive, in part because the cities have been operating under a joint fire department for more than a year.

Camas and Washougal implemented a temporary fire merger during the summer of 2011 as a way to contend with EMS shortfalls caused by declining property tax revenues.

Last year, they chose to extend the partnership through Dec. 31 to provide time for the regional fire authority committee to evaluate the pros and cons of creating a fire authority, an option that would require voter approval and the creation of a new taxing district with an independent board.

“You have a series of short-term funding decisions you’re going to have to make over the next two years,” Lewis told committee members during a Tuesday night presentation of his findings.

Those decisions will center on how to restructure and fund a new-look fire department. Fire chiefs for the cities say they’ve saved money since the short-term merger began.

Members of the fire authority say they’re cautious about the idea of creating a regional fire authority, however.

“I don’t think we have anything to sell the public to compel them to vote for a new public entity that would have its own autonomy,” said committee member Don Chaney, a Camas city councilor.

Nick Swinhart, fire chief for the Washougal-Camas Fire Department, pointed to Snohomish County, where talks to combine departments under a regional fire authority have hit a snag because of how complicated it would be to implement.

Consolidation isn’t a perfect option either, officials cautioned. Both cities would have to coordinate levies to pay for fire services, something that could be achieved through an intergovernmental agreement.

Steve Hogan, a committee member and Camas city councilor, said the cities would have to work together to ensure they implemented a plan smoothly.

He said he didn’t want it to be like “having a bad dance partner, with each person doing the wrong dance steps.”

Committee members did not make a decision at Tuesday night’s meeting.

They said they need more time to digest the report’s findings. The committee could make a decision at its next meeting in February.

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