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Consultants: Camas-Washougal Fire Department merger ‘not sustainable’

Washougal in particular struggles to fund agency’s needs

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A fire engine is pictured at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department Station 42 in Camas.
A fire engine is pictured at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department Station 42 in Camas. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

A nearly decadelong partnership between Camas and Washougal that formed the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in 2013, “has too many gaps to represent a sustainable model moving forward,” consultants told Camas and Washougal city officials last month.

Camas City Council members said they hoped the consultants would be able to come up with a solution that allows the fire department to meet the community’s growth and increased needs without putting the bulk of the financial strain on any one jurisdiction.

“The cost-sharing formula that forms the basis of the CWFD merger has created friction in the partnership, and has, at times, threatened the continuance of it,” CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told city councilors in May. “Both cities have expressed frustration at their inability to fund the necessary growth of the fire department.”

Under the 10-year agreement that merged the two fire departments in 2013, Camas agreed to be the fire department’s main funding agency and pay roughly 60 percent of the department’s costs, leaving Washougal to shoulder 40 percent of the costs.

Officials in both cities began to question the merger in 2018, after Camas city councilors agreed to add four new firefighter positions into the city’s 2019-20 budget. Though most Washougal councilors agreed the fire department was short-staffed and the positions were needed, Washougal officials said their city could not afford to pay for 40 percent of the new hires. The issue came up again in 2020, after Camas leaders again said they were considering adding another four firefighters to the roster in the 2021-22 budget.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told the Post-Record in 2020 that Washougal city councilors “have generally acknowledged the need for enhanced staffing” at CWFD but are having trouble finding revenue to cover Washougal’s share of the new hires.

An analysis by Tualatin, Ore.-based Merina + CO showed Washougal officials were right to worry about the fire department’s financial burden on their city.

“Based on what we believe the city of Washougal could raise in property taxes given the current rates … (paying the city’s share of the CWFD partnership in 2023 through 2028) is not sustainable for the city of Washougal,” Merina consultant Rob Moody told the council last month. “In order to come up with money for contributions to Camas, (Washougal) would have to increase tax rates or come up with another source of revenue.”

The consultants’ report gave CWFD high marks for maintaining a high level of service, finding operational efficiencies and providing the same level of service for all community members. But when it came to the department’s long-term sustainability, the consultants recommended finding an alternative to the current arrangement.

“You could disband the partnership and let each community go its own way, but we’ve heard from all of you that’s not the expected result or something anybody is particularly interested in,” Moody told city officials.

Instead, the consultants are now working on evaluating three primary alternatives: forming a regional fire authority; creating a fire district (with the possibility of combining with the East County Fire and Rescue district) or finding an alternative interlocal agreement that could include forming a governmental nonprofit organization to oversee the fire department.

The consultants will review the various alternatives using the same criteria they used to measure the existing fire partnership’s long-term sustainability and will review their results with members of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee in the new year before presenting the information to Camas-Washougal mayors and city council members in February 2022.

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