A vote by the local firefighters’ union has put an end to recent discussions about East County Fire and Rescue contracting with the Camas-Washougal Fire Department for shared administrative services.
During the July 5 East County Fire and Rescue Commission meeting, CWFD Chief Nick Swinhart said a proposed memorandum of understanding was rejected by a vote of the membership of the IAFF Local 2444 East Clark Professional Fire Fighters.
The document outlined monthly salary increases of 2.85 percent for CWFD battalion chiefs — payment for extra work that would have been involved in overseeing ECFR operations.
“One of the things we realized early on in this effort was that I couldn’t do it alone,” Swinhart said. “We needed to have involvement with the labor group as the city looked to the battalion chiefs to handle some of that additional workload.”
Swinhart described the union’s rejection of the MOU as a “setback,” adding that Camas remains open to future discussions regarding collaboration between the two fire departments.
“If this ends up being the end of the road as far as the discussions we’ve been working on, it doesn’t mean the door is closed,” he said. “If such opportunities arise in the future, we are always open to it.”
IAFF Local 2444 President Adam Brice said rejection of the MOU by the union on June 30 reflected concerns among a majority of its 59 members that sharing administrative services with ECFR would have further “diluted” the department.
“The union has always been an advocate of fiscal mergers,” he said. “We started out a thinly staffed organization. The merger with Washougal thinned us out even more. The biggest concern we have is a further dilution of our services because our staff would spend time outside of the city limits of Washougal and Camas.”
The Camas and Washougal fire departments merged in 2013.
Brice would not disclose a breakdown of the union’s vote. Its membership includes firefighters, paramedics and battalion chiefs from Camas, Washougal and ECFR.
“There were very few that were in support of us accepting the MOU,” he said.
According to Brice the union favored a proposal that involved taking the monetary gains that would result from an administrative merger and using them to enhance the department’s level of service, with no wage increases for members.
“Our position with the city is we are happy to continue to sit down and make this happen, but we want to see it happen in a way where we are not told to do more with less,” he said.
Swinhart said a proposal the union supported would have required the creation of a new position.
“It wouldn’t involve any up-front funds from either Camas or East County, but it would have obligated us to establish and hire a division chief of operations at some point in the future,” he said. “That is a position that we have long agreed with the labor group that we need someday. But with the finances of Camas we couldn’t commit to establishing a future position if we didn’t even know if it was going to exist at whatever point it needed to be established.”
Swinhart estimated it would cost the department approximately $700,000 to implement the union’s preferred proposal.
ECFR Commissioner Mike Berg has been a longtime proponent of pursuing a merger with CWFD. It is an effort he believes would achieve cost savings and service efficiencies.
“I am extremely disappointed in the outcome [of the union vote],” Berg said. “We had high hopes. I thought it was going to happen this time. In the history of the fire service, duplication of services doesn’t make sense for the people.”
ECFR Commissioner Thomas Gianatasio described the union’s vote as a temporary setback.
He predicts that fire district officials will eventually have to address issues surrounding its service areas that are being annexed into adjacent municipalities, which is leading to a dissipation of its tax base.
“I’m never closed-minded to any option,” he said. “I just know that the present way we are doing business is not sustainable. That’s the bottom line. I personally think some kind of merger in the future is the way we have to go. How and when that happens, I really don’t know.”
It appears that the next immediate step for ECFR will be to pursue hiring a permanent chief.
Current Interim Chief Al Gillespie was contracted in November 2015 to temporarily lead ECFR following the retirement of Interim Chief Dean Thornberry.
The intention was to keep Gillespie on board until a permanent chief could be hired. The search process, guided by a paid consultant, resulted in six candidates. Two were chosen as finalists in February.
That’s when discussions about shared administrative services ramped up between CWFD and ECFR officials. The hiring process was put on hold.
Eight months later, Gillespie is still the interim chief. A two-month contract that started June 1 has him working up to 36 hours a month for a flat fee of $10,000 per month.
According to Gillespie following the union’s recent rejection of the MOU, district officials decided to make a conditional offer of employment to Jay Wittwer — one of the two original chief finalists.
This marks the beginning of negotiations for an employment agreement and salary specifications.
Gillespie said he expects Wittwer will either attend the commission’s next meeting on Tuesday, July 19, or participate via speaker phone.
Since 1987 Wittwer has worked for North Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, where he currently serves as a battalion chief.
He is also listed by the City of Tukwila as one of six finalists for the fire chief position at its fire department. Interviews for that job are scheduled to occur today.
Gianatasio admits he has reservations about hiring a full-time chief. He would prefer the district move forward with a merger, or hire someone to lead the department on a part-time basis.
“I think it’s a huge waste of money,” he said. “We don’t need a full-time chief. There is not enough administrative work to do. I’d rather have the firefighters in the station, as opposed to have an administrator working full-time, and he doesn’t have enough to do. But, I only have one vote.”