Fire District 5's dilemma

In light of agreement with Vancouver and reprimand by state auditor, district faces ongoing question of its identity

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Glenwood, Sifton, Proebstel and Orchards lie miles outside Vancouver. Residents pay taxes to Clark County Fire Protection District 5 and vote for fire commissioners. Just the same, if a house catches fire there, it’s a Vancouver truck that will answer the call.

It’s been like this for 20 years, long enough for many people to think it’s always been that way.

In the face of Vancouver’s massive annexation of Cascade Park, which nearly doubled the size of the city, the district signed a 1994 contract with Vancouver for the city to provide fire protection in the district. In return, the district gave the city its trucks, firefighters and most of its money.

The original contract was for 20 years, but the parties never expected it to last that long. They were certain the 42 square miles remaining in the district would have been enfolded by the city by now.

That hasn’t happened. Economic and political realities blocked the way. Instead, Vancouver and District 5 are entering discussions to refresh their contract. The long, awkward marriage is likely to continue indefinitely, even though the fallout has put the fire district at odds with the state auditor’s office.

When Fire District 5 gave up fighting fires, it found purpose in offering occupational safety programs, which audit reports deem to exceed the district’s authority. District officials say they are serving a public need, and they’ll keep doing it.

‘Writing on the wall’

District 5’s initial contract with Vancouver required it to hand over 95 percent of its tax collections to the city, retaining just enough to maintain an office and administration in support of the elected commissioners. Fire districts can collect $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, while cities fill their coffers not only with property taxes, but sales taxes and other fees.

“The fire district saw the writing on the wall,” Fire District 5 Administrator Dave Vial said. It appeared the city would, within a matter of years, gobble up the district. Instead of fighting change, district commissioners tried to get ahead of it.

“For the citizens for our area and the city of Vancouver, it was a good move both ways,” District 5 Commissioner Mike Lyons said.

Vancouver Councilman Larry Smith echoed that sentiment. He was working as assistant city manager at the time the deal was struck.

“The agreement has worked well,” Smith said. “Everyone knew the agreement had to be a work in process.”

Indeed, circumstances changed as time went on. Rapid housing development outside the city boosted the district’s property tax collections, which were kicked to Vancouver, freeing up the city’s general fund for other priorities. The district commissioners didn’t think it fair that its taxpayers were providing a windfall to the city. The district and the city revised their agreement in 2005, so the district pays the city according to a formula based on how much money the city commits from its general fund.

Over the last five years, Fire District 5 collected roughly $9 million a year and paid Vancouver about $7.5 million to fulfill the contract, and often a few hundred thousand above that to fill budget gaps or special needs. The city’s general fund, grants, fees and other sources covered the remainder of Vancouver Fire’s budget. In 2013, the department had a staff of 198 and spent $33.5 million.

The district spends about $625,000 running its office, which employs 2.6 full-time-equivalent staffers and supports the three commissioners. The rest of its tax collections are held in a special fund the fire district’s commissioners can tap as necessary. Right now, there’s about $5 million in that fund.

“It’s Vancouver Fire’s money. We just get to assist in deciding how it’s spent. We try to see that it’s spent to match the growth of the community,” Lyons said.

That fund paid for construction of a new fire station in Glenwood that opened in 2006, Lyons said. It’s also the pot District 5 commissioners agreed to tap to cover an anticipated $1.3 million shortfall in the city’s fire budget. Since District 5 made that pledge in 2012, the economy has improved, boosting the city’s revenues. City Manager Eric Holmes in January sent a letter to Vial telling him to hold off on the payment, as it was not necessary.

In the same letter, Holmes said he looked forward to discussions between the city and fire district on how to “refine and refresh” their agreement, which became perpetual in the 2005 revision.

New purpose

Contracting with Vancouver for fire services flung Fire District 5 into an identity crisis.

Officials grappled with the question, “If all we do is collect tax dollars and give it to the city, what are we doing here?” Vial said.

The district couldn’t dissolve without being annexed by the city. By law, it had to exist to collect the property taxes necessary to pay for fire protection, as well as to provide district residents with elected representation.

District officials had something more in mind.

In 2000, the district established the Northwest Regional Training Center to offer training that local governments need their workers to receive to meet state and federal safety regulations. The courses expanded to include backhoe safety, forklift certification, defensive driving and even training for certified nursing assistants.

“We’re not trying to justify our existence. We saw it as keeping our identity as a fire district that provides a good service to the public without using tax dollars to do so,” Vial said.

The Washington State Auditor’s Office has taken a dim view of the arrangement. An audit report released in December admonished District 5 for using public money on training activities that it considers to be outside the district’s legal authority. It’s the third audit in a row that dinged the district for the activities of its Northwest Regional Training Center.

In response to the audits, the district transferred the nursing training to a private company in 2011. The district’s attorney maintains, however, that the other programs are within its authority.

“It’s a difference of opinion on the reading of the statute,” Vial said.

The only tax money that goes to the training center is any time the district’s 2.6 tax-funded employees spend on it, Vial said. Course fees cover the cost of building space and the center’s 35 part-time instructors, he said.

Vial said he has found 28 other fire departments that provide similar training, none of which have been cited by the auditor.

“If the public understood what we do, they would say, “Yeah, this is good,’ ” Vial said. “We could do exactly what we’re doing without the training center and people would still pay the same in taxes.”

Stubbornly suburban

Clark County District 5 isn’t the only one in the state that hires out firefighting within its boundaries. Fifteen throughout the state do so, according to the Washington Fire Commissioners Association. Clark County represents a unique predicament, however. Among the state’s largest counties, Clark has the highest percentage of its population — almost half — residing outside cities, according to the most recent figures from the state Office of Financial Management.

That’s not what the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act envisions. It requires counties larger than 50,000 residents to draw a firm line dividing city-style development from rural areas. The law defines land as either urban or rural; it doesn’t contemplate suburbs. Although the act says land within urban growth boundaries should eventually become part of a city, it doesn’t set any time lines for that to happen.

When Vancouver annexed almost 18 square miles in 1997, it seemed the city would absorb all the settled land on its perimeter. But that stopped.

“That was such a huge annexation. It almost doubled the population of the city and its acreage,” said Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director. “Our philosophy since that time — especially since we hit the recession — is that we really need to focus on taking care of what we’ve got and make sure we’re not taking in large tracts we can’t provide service to.”

Meanwhile, the county expanded urban growth boundaries, enabling more housing development in the unincorporated areas rimming the city. These not-city-but-hardly-rural areas continue to be served by a myriad of agencies — Clark Public Utilities, Clark Regional Wastewater District, the county and fire districts.

“The urban growth area is intended to be annexed into the city at some point in time. There’s no deadlines in (the Growth Management Act) or from the state that we would have to annex areas by a certain date,” Eiken said. “There is that commitment out there that eventually those would be annexed into the city. We’re just looking at a longer horizon.”

So long, in fact, that Fire District 5 still exists even though it expected — and even requested — to be annexed by the city. Fire commissioners in 2005 asked the county’s boundary review board to expand an 823 acre annexation sought by Vancouver to include all of District 5. To thwart the larger annexation, county commissioners disbanded the boundary review board.

With annexation by Vancouver off the table, in 2010, Fire District 5 explored another possibility: a sort of reverse annexation, in which the district would levy its $1.50 per $1,000 property tax within the city and become the firefighting agency. That idea didn’t gain traction.

Although fire districts have the advantage of a dedicated stream of funding, it hinges entirely on property values.

“It’s a one-string guitar,” as Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina put it.

Not much is likely to change in the arrangement between Vancouver and District 5. Although they are revisiting the agreement, Vial and Molina said they don’t expect major changes. The city and the district recognize they are so deeply intertwined that there’s no going back.

“We clearly have strengthened our partnership. … It allows us to look at it more collaboratively. I’m optimistic about it,” Molina said. “We really are in it together.”