ECFR could face tough budget cuts

Firefighters' jobs are in jeopardy

As part of efforts of the Level of Service Committee, its seven members were asked to answer questions that covered a handful of topics:

o How many fire stations ECFR should operate? Six people suggested selling Station 95, which is located on 39th Street in Washougal, while two people suggested closing Station 92, on Northeast 292nd Avenue in Camas, and Station 96 in Bear Prairie in Washougal.

o How many paid emergency responders should ECFR operate with? Six committee members said it should maintain current numbers (nine full-time firefighters and five part-time firefighters) or add more employees.

o Should ECFR seek voter-approved funding to pay for capital needs? Six answered "yes."

o Is there any advantage to ECFR taxpayers if the district is consolidated into another agency? Five committee members said "no," while two weren't sure and wanted the district to continue to research the issue.

As part of efforts of the Level of Service Committee, its seven members were asked to answer questions that covered a handful of topics:

o How many fire stations ECFR should operate? Six people suggested selling Station 95, which is located on 39th Street in Washougal, while two people suggested closing Station 92, on Northeast 292nd Avenue in Camas, and Station 96 in Bear Prairie in Washougal.

o How many paid emergency responders should ECFR operate with? Six committee members said it should maintain current numbers (nine full-time firefighters and five part-time firefighters) or add more employees.

o Should ECFR seek voter-approved funding to pay for capital needs? Six answered “yes.”

o Is there any advantage to ECFR taxpayers if the district is consolidated into another agency? Five committee members said “no,” while two weren’t sure and wanted the district to continue to research the issue.

East County Fire and Rescue Commissioners will soon be contemplating some difficult decisions as they begin the district’s 2015 budget discussions.

With a projected shortfall next year of approximately $120,000 to $130,000, firefighter layoffs are a possibility, according to Chief Scott Koehler.

The primary reason for the potential deficit is the sunset of a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In June 2011, ECFR received the $799,700 grant, which funded the wages and benefits for five full-time firefighter/emergency medical technicians for two years. The district was required to fund the positions for an additional year.

The money the district saved to cover that third year ran out in June 2014, then the district used money from an increase in property tax revenue to fund the positions for the last six months of the year.

“The potential for the projected shortfall has to do with whether we continue to fund three of the folks that used to be on the SAFER grant,” Koehler said. “The question is, what are this coming year’s taxes going to be? Property values continue to increase, but we don’t have an [exact] number.”

Koehler said the fire district’s property tax revenue dropped from $2 million per year in 2008 to $1.4 million in 2013. This year, that number bounced back up to nearly $1.7 million.

If line positions are cut, Koehler said additional part-time firefighters would need to be hired to backfill.

“Currently, we’re at nine [full-time firefighters]; we generally have funding for six,” Koehler said. “But what we have found is six is the absolute minimum. If anyone takes a day off, there’s no coverage.

“There are certainly advantages to keeping some if not all of those three on,” he continued. “If we lay off any of those SAFER folks, we will end up hiring some additional part-timers to help fill vacancies when people are sick or take vacation. Right now, each part-timer is about $21,000 per year.”

In addition to the full-time firefighters, ECFR’s paid emergency response staff includes five part-time firefighters. They, along with approximately 50 volunteers, provide fire protection and emergency medical service response to the 10,000 residents who live within the 60 square miles of unincorporated area that are north of and east of the cities of Camas and Washougal.

ECFR has six stations, two of which are staffed 24-hours-a-day. The district responded to 826 calls in 2013, 917 in 2012 and 888 in 2011.

Koehler said other expenses that will factor into the 2015 budget include paying $250,000 in capital costs for a new radio system that is being required by Clark County, and increasing costs for maintenance on three of the district’s fire engines that are at least 20 years old.

Finding new revenue streams for the district to tap into could be a challenge.

ECFR’s general obligation bond is at its statutory limit of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. This money supports its operations as well as payments on its non-voted debt — a “councilmanic” bond used to fund the construction of the Fern Prairie fire station in 2008.

In November 2013, a $1.275 million capital projects bond was defeated by voters when it failed to receive the required super majority 60 percent approval. It would have funded items including two new fire engines, one brush truck, and new fire fighting and medical equipment.

Whether to run that bond, or something similar, again is a decision the commission will have to make.

This issue and the 2015 budget will be major topics of discussion in the coming months.

Koehler said a draft budget will be presented to the commission at its regular meeting Oct. 7. The final budget must be approved at the Nov. 18 regular board meeting or at a special meeting before the end of November. The budget must be submitted to Clark County by the last business day of the month.

“It’s a tough time for government everywhere,” Koehler said. “If it weren’t an essential service and we didn’t have to operate 24-7-365, we’d probably have a lot more flexibility. But we don’t, and I think we do a really good job of providing an amazing level of service to our community, with not a lot of money. We just have to work through these challenges, get some answers to some questions, get some direction, plead our case to the public and see where they stand.”

Level of Service Committee provides input

A recent effort to gauge constituents’ viewpoints and accept their feedback occurred earlier this year when a citizen committee was created.

Seven people submitted applications expressing a desire to be part of the committee, and all were appointed to serve. Members included Dave Currier, Kay Currier, Lucinda Daniel, Tom Gianatasio, Brian McClatchie, Merrick Myers and Sheldon Tyler.

During the group’s four meetings, members were provided with background information about the district, its facilities, apparatus, budget and policies. The citizens offered their opinions on topics including what services they think are important to continue, and which should be altered, cut or added.

“In general, the majority said we are headed in the right direction,” Koehler said.

During a special commission workshop held in late July, which was specifically called to talk about the level of service committee’s work, McClatchie commented that the district needs to focus on finding a way to solve its money problems. His suggestions included selling obsolete equipment and organizing community fundraising events. Charging for services, he said, should be a last resort.

“Grants are great, but there’s no guarantee they are going to be there that second year,” he said. “We need to find a more reliable income source other than a tax base, which we don’t have.”

McClatchie said he is not in favor of merging ECFR with the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

“I say absolutely not under any circumstances, because we won’t have any fire protection services around here, plain and simple,” he said. “They are so busy running ambulance calls, they can’t fight their own fires now. We’d be the odd stepchild out.”

Commissioner Gary Larson said it’s an idea that has been looked at seriously more than once.

“Over the 35 years I have been here, we have had numerous discussions with the two cities to the south about consolidation,” he said. “We have even tried a staffing agreement. I am assuming that there will come a day when out of necessity, we’ll have lost enough tax base, that we’ll have to. When that day will happen, I don’t know. I can’t answer that.”

Commissioner Martha Martin said the lines of communication between CWFD and ECFR should remain open.

“I think the reality is, [we need to look at] what we are going to look like in 10 years,” she said. “If we become a shrinking island, and we don’t work with those people, we just disappear. We have no say.”

According to Larson and Koehler, officials from both entities’ have been meeting regularly to discuss a variety of topics.

“We’re working at it,” Larson said.

Gianatasio said he supports at least considering a merger of some kind, and suggested that cuts at ECFR’s administrative level should be considered.

The district currently has two chief officers and two office staff members — one part-time and one full-time.

“Use attrition to get one of the chiefs to go away,” he said. “Camas could do administration. You have too many gold badges. You are very heavy in administrators. If you have ECFR administration taken over by some other entity, you could save a lot of that overhead money. I know people don’t want to hear that.”

Several committee members suggested raising money by selling Station 95, which is located in Washougal at the corner on 39th Street. Although $750,000 was spent to remodel and expand the facility in 2002, it currently houses equipment but has not been staffed for several years. ECFR has tried to sell it before, but its current residential zoning designation has made it difficult.

“If we are not using the station, somehow or another we need to figure out how to get out from under it,” said Commissioner Vic Rasmussen.

Martin said ECFR should look into making the station available through contract with the CWFD, for training exercises or other uses.

“The building is sitting there and not being used,” she said. “It’s costing money to maintain.”

Decisions will need to be made

Koehler said he will be looking for some direction on the 2015 budget from the commissioners in the coming months.

“We have to look very closely to figure out how we will use the money we will end up having,” Koehler said. “If we end up laying people off, that is an awful thought because these folks are just truly committed to this community and this agency. They have a level of professionalism that just shines.”

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