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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Washougal, Camas seek fair fix for fire department

Deal that created joint agency set to expire on Dec. 31

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The agreement that created the joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department in 2013 is set to expire at the end of this year.

In anticipation, city and fire officials in Camas and Washougal have been trying to nail down details for a new agreement that would, ideally, maintain a joint fire department and provide the same level of fire and emergency medical services Camas-Washougal residents are used to, without straining Washougal’s more limited revenue resources.

This week, Camas officials who act as liaisons for the fire department’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee said they preferred an option that would do just that.

During the Camas City Council’s workshop on Tuesday, Camas Mayor Steve Hogan provided council members with options for funding the joint fire department.

“The intent is to take the existing (department) and assist them toward a future with a regional fire authority,” Hogan said, adding that the “ramp up time” to a new regional fire authority, which would create a separate taxing district and would have to be approved by voters, was likely three years. “It will take a planning committee a year or two to create the structure for this.”

Until then, Hogan said, officials hope to “move toward an option that satisfies our citizenry.”

61-39 split

Under the current 10-year agreement set to expire Dec. 31, Camas pays 61 percent of the costs of the joint fire department and Washougal pays 39 percent. Both cities use their general fund — which also pays for things like streets, police and parks — to fund the firefighting portion of the department and voter-approved levies to pay for EMS services.

The options presented to the Camas council members this week included Option 1, which would be closest to a regional fire authority funding model. In it, Camas would pay about 70 percent, while Washougal pays 30 percent.

“That’s the difference between Camas’ and Washougal’s assessed value,” Hogan explained of the 70-30 split, noting that Camas’ total assessed value is $7.2 billion, while Washougal’s is around $3.2 billion.

Option 2 is closer to what both cities have been paying since Camas officials added new firefighters and Washougal officials said they could not afford to fully pay the cost of those new positions — with Camas paying 63 percent of the fire department’s costs and Washougal, which has a much smaller tax base, paying 37 percent.

Option 3, known as the “Camas Go Alone” option, would separate the fire departments.

The committee members on the Camas City Council, which include Councilmembers Don Chaney, Bonnie Carter and Doug Nohr, said they preferred Option 2.

“We were hoping to move the funding mechanism closer to what the (regional fire authority) would reflect,” Carter said Tuesday, “but, in analyzing this … (the 70-30 split) was a big hit to our general fund. That’s why we continued to look at other options. The 63-37 split was a little bit more palatable to Camas and still financially responsible.”

Even though Option 2 would cost slightly more than for Camas to “go it alone,” Carter and other members of the committee agreed residents in both cities would be better served by a joint fire department.

“We know we’re better together,” Carter said. “And we know we would be providing services (to Washougal) even if Camas were to (go it) alone.”

Nohr, who is the fire chief of the Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue department in north Clark County, agreed that regional fire services would be better with a joint Camas-Washougal fire department.

“There is a lot of strength that comes from having one fire department,” Nohr said Tuesday.

Go it alone?

Councilman Tim Hein, who has previously questioned whether it might be more cost effective for Camas to have its own fire department, said Tuesday that he was “trying to understand Option 3 (the Camas Go Alone option).”

“If it costs us, as a city $150,000 less to go alone … so it’s almost the same … then what are the advantages to continuing to stay together when we retain control if we go alone?” Hein asked.

“I think the fire guys in the room would tell you that offering a service over (a bigger area) has benefits in efficiencies and coverage,” Nohr said. “So, people living here see more reliable service provided to them … (service that) would not be as efficient if we were separated.”

Nohr added that, even if the two cities were to return to having their own fire departments, Camas would likely still need to cover Washougal’s emergency medical service calls and respond to fire calls when Washugal firefighters were on other calls.

Hogan said that Option 2 is based on conversations with Washougal officials regarding that city’s ability to pay for joint fire-EMS services.

“I went for the most Washougal felt they could pay and created (Option 2) from there,” Hogan said.

‘A complicated issue’

Councilmember Leslie Lewallen asked when city officials “started noticing there were problems with the agreement” and was told by Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn that issues first came up in 2019, when Camas fire officials and firefighter union representatives fought for higher staffing levels in the wake of a limited staffing situation that resulted in two firefighters acting alone to rescue a man from a burning home — and in state fines for the city of Camas.

“It is a complicated issue, and I hope that, once we get this resolved, that, moving forward, we try to take measures to get it resolved before it becomes a problem this late in the game,” Lewallen said.

In the end, since they were in a workshop and not a regular meeting, the council members could not vote on the issue, but committee members asked if any of the councilors had objections to them taking Option 2 to their counterparts in Washougal.

None of the council members objected.

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