Camas, Washougal nearer to a fire merger

Still needed: Camas' OK to draft contract, spelling out of details

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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WASHOUGAL — Efforts to permanently merge Camas' and Washougal's fire and EMS services continue in earnest, with fire officials believing a contract between the cities could be signed by the end of the year.

On Monday, the Washougal City Council gave a unanimous nod of approval to drafting a service contract with Camas, among the last major hurdles in creating a long-term framework for combining the cities' fire departments. If the Camas City Council gives the same go-ahead at its meeting next Monday, the cities' top administrators will begin fine-tuning an agreement.

"What that does is, it gives us a little bit of direction," said Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart.

An interlocal agreement consolidating the two departments, which have been operating under a trial merger for the past two years, could be in place by the end of the year, he said. The trial merger was extended last winter but is set to expire at the end of the year.

A new, long-term contract would spell out exactly how a merged department would operate.

Some questions city administrators would need to answer include how to streamline pay scales and maintain seniority among the departments' employees. Those decisions will require buy-in from the union. The International Association of Fire Fighters' Local 2444 is the bargaining unit for both Camas and Washougal firefighters.

Other issues include how each city will allocate and pay for fire and EMS services.

Savings down the road

Financial projections released in January by consultant Paul Lewis indicated both cities would save money under a functional consolidation.

Some council members say the near-term saving — projected at around $100,000 by 2015 for each city — is not the top selling point for a merger.

"The cost savings at the present time are very little," Washougal Councilor Brent Boger said Tuesday. "But down the road, when you have economies of scale, the merger will reduce costs. We'll get by with hiring less staff."

Fire officials say even the trial merger has brought savings. This year, Washougal is expected to save about $55,000 in overtime, in part because of the trial merger, according to a recent update of Lewis' projections.

Under a long-term consolidation, Washougal anticipates spending roughly $2.6 million on services in 2015. About $637,000 of that would be covered by dedicated revenue, Lewis said, from the city's EMS levy, in addition to payment for ambulance trips.

While Boger said he supported the merger because it would improve service in the cities, he voiced skepticism that a contract could be in place by Dec. 31.

If a contract isn't signed this year, the cities could opt to extend their temporary merger, said Swinhart. "Barring any changes, everybody is still hoping for a firm decision before the end of the year," he said.

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