Fire chief recommends regional fire authority study

Camas Council will vote on proposal Feb. 21

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Following initial success in the trial merger between the Camas and Washougal fire departments, Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart is recommending the effort be extended and a formal exploration of the feasibility of establishing a regional fire authority be explored.

Swinhart said during last night’s City Council workshop that on Tuesday, Feb. 21 the council would have the opportunity to vote to extend the current trial merger effort by two years, and form a planning committee that would establish a vision, operational aspects and funding methodology for a fire authority proposal.

Work on the latter, he said, could take up to two years.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Swinhart said. “That is why we need the extension.”

Councilman Greg Anderson, who has been involved in other local attempts at fire department consolidations, said he wondered whether the two fire departments should just continue to focus on the trial merger, rather than jumping into pursuing a regional fire authority.

Swinhart said the positive results so far make this situation unique.

“We are dealing with a little bit of a different animal — hopefully,” he said.

Mayor Scott Higgins said the city wants to make sure the planning process is thorough.

“We won’t rush something that’s not ready and won’t be given the chance to succeed,” Higgins said.

In the end a regional fire authority, which is a taxing district, would need voter approval to be established. If approved, it would allow the local jurisdictions to form one fire department that could levy taxes as a separate entity, and in theory operate more efficiently.

Washougal has expressed interest in looking into the possibility, and Higgins said East County Fire and Rescue would also be invited to take part in the fire authority study.

Councilman Don Chaney said he supports the effort.

“If we can deliver better service, and do it economically, then it’s a win-win,” he said.

The current emergency services system operates through an inter-local agreement between the Camas and Washougal fire departments and ECFR. It is supported primarily through a voter-approved EMS levy in each jurisdiction. These funds are delivered to Camas, which provides paramedic services.

With the downturn in assessed values in recent years, that EMS fund has struggled financially. Last year, the city of Washougal ended up contributing an extra $95,000 to the Camas EMS fund, and added to its roster a new firefighter/IV technician position at a cost of approximately $55,000 in 2011.

The six-month trial consolidation effort officially began in September, and since has reduced overtime expenses by giving the Camas and Washougal fire departments flexibility to move staff from station to station to fill gaps and maintain minimum staffing.

Swinhart said thanks to these and other efforts, including internal changes within the CFD, a 2011 deficit initially projected at $310,000 was reduced by the end of the year to approximately $50,000, an amount that was covered using general fund reserves.

“All of those things have come together to basically stabilize the EMS system,” he said.

Officials are currently looking at long-term solutions, which could include going to voters with a request to increase the current levy rate in August. The most recent EMS levy, approved in 2006, expires at the end of the year.

The goal, Higgins said during the recent Camas planning conference, is to make sure the system is fully sustainable for the next six years.

“It’s going to get a lot of attention this year,” he said. “It has to.”