Washougal council gives go-ahead to fire merger contract

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 hurdle 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 two cities’ top administrators will begin fine-tuning an agreement.

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

An interlocal agreement consolidating the two departments, which have been locked into a trial merger for the past two years, could be in place by the end of the year, he said. A trial merger between the departments 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 of the questions city administrators would answer include how to streamline pay scales and maintain seniority among the departments’ employees. Those issues 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 factors include how each city will allocate and pay for fire and EMS services.

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

Still, some councilmembers say the monetary savings — projected at around $100,000 by 2015 for each city — are not the top selling points for moving ahead with a merger.

“The cost savings at the present time are very little,” Councilman Brent Boger said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But down the road, when you have economies of scale, the merger will reduce costs. We’ll get by with hiring less staff.”

Under a long-term consolidation, Washougal would spend roughly $2.6 million on services in 2015. About $637,000 of that would be covered by dedicated revenue, Lewis said. In part, the money would come from the city’s EMS levy, in addition to revenue it receives from ambulance trips.

Fire officials have pointed to savings under the existing trial merger. This year, Washougal is estimated to save about $55,000 in overtime, in part because of the trial merger, according to a recent update of Lewis’ report.

While Boger said he supported the merger because it would bolster the cities’ level of service, he voiced skepticism that a contract between Camas and Washougal would be in place by the end of the year.

If a contract isn’t signed by the end of the year, the cities could opt to extend their temporary merger, Swinhart said.

“Barring any changes everybody is still hoping for a firm decision before the end of the year,” Swinhart said.