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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sept. 24, 2023

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Consultants say Camas, Washougal should reshape firefighting partnership

Regional fire authority would address gaps in current arrangement


A little more than seven months have passed since consultants reviewing the Camas-Washougal Fire Department informed local city officials that the partnership that merged both cities’ fire departments in 2013 “has too many gaps to represent a sustainable model moving forward.”

Now, the consultants have brought a preferred alternative back for Camas-Washougal officials’ consideration.

Instead of working to correct the many gaps in the current interlocal agreement, consultants with Tualatin, Ore.-based Merina + Co told Washougal and Camas city council members, the officials should consider forming a regional fire authority that would continue to provide fire and emergency medical services to the entire Camas-Washougal region.

“What’s become clear is that the (regional fire authority) provides the best opportunity to address many of the gaps facing the (fire department),” Jordan Henderson, of Merina, told Camas officials Monday.

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 about 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 that the fire department was short-staffed and the positions were needed, Washougal officials said their city just 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.

Consultants said the current partnership has no mechanisms to address future staffing, training, equipment or facility needs — including the need to replace two of the fire department’s three fire stations (Station 41 in downtown Camas and Station 43 in Washougal) within the next few years.

Forming a regional fire authority would require voter approval and would take extensive planning and voter education efforts by both cities, but would help address nearly all of these gaps, Henderson told Camas City Council members.

Under a regional fire authority, the fire department would have more sustainable financing mechanisms, including the ability to pass fire, EMS and maintenance/operations levies; implement a fire benefit charge; assess utility fees; and go out for capital bonds. Though the authority would not be able to recommend or impose fire impact fees on new development, the cities of Camas and Washougal would retain that authority and could pass the impact fees onto the authority, Henderson said.

Officials in both cities say they now want members of the fire department’s Joint Policy Advisory Council to look into the regional fire authority option presented by the Merina consultants.

Camas interim City Administrator Jeff Swanson said it will likely take officials a year to work on a regional fire authority agreement and “probably a good nine months” after that “to educate the community” about putting the question on the ballot.