Camas passes $195M budget

Two-year spending plan includes new firefighters, but hires still need council’s ‘ultimate approval’

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After pushing a budget decision to the wire at their last meeting on Dec. 3, the Camas City Council has approved a $195 million biennial budget for 2019-20.

“Congratulations. That was a little easier this time,” said newly appointed Camas Mayor Shannon Turk after the councilors, absent Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, unanimously passed the budget Monday night with little discussion or fanfare.

The council allocated money for four new firefighters and one new fire marshal at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) in the biennial budget, but CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart cautioned that this does not mean he can go out and hire new firefighters on Jan. 1.

“It’s important to remember that … council simply approved allocating for the new positions in the 2019-20 budget,” Swinhart said. “We’ll still need to go back before the council in early 2019 and get an additional approval to actually hire the new (firefighters and fire marshal).”

That approval, Swinhart said, “is likely going to hinge on whether Washougal ends up being able to fund their portion of some or all of the positions.”

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said Tuesday that Washougal city leaders are “leaning toward funding their share of two firefighters,” but that Camas City Council members want to know Washougal’s position on funding before approving any of the new fire department hires.

“Council wants to wait until we know more,” Capell said. “If Washougal is willing to pay for two people, is Camas going to just pay our share of two and delay hiring the others or say, ‘that’s a good faith effort’ … and fund all five? There are mixed feelings on council about that.”

Capell said Camas councilors likely will discuss the issue again at their Jan. 7 or Jan. 22 meeting. Washougal City Council does not meet again until Jan. 14.

“We expect to have formal notice after that,” Capell said. “I would hope to get some direction from council in January, and certainly by February.”

The fire chief said he’s hopeful he will “get ultimate approval,” but stressed that the inclusion of the positions on the job roster is not authorization to go ahead with the hiring process.

City leaders had pushed the budget down to the final city council meeting of 2018 after several councilors expressed concerns about Camas’ fire department partner — the city of Washougal — refusing to pay for their portion of the new firefighter positions.

Under the two cities’ interlocal Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) agreement, Washougal is responsible for about 40 percent of the department’s costs, while Camas pays for roughly 60 percent.

The issue of staffing levels at CWFD came to a head this year, after a February fire forced an engine crew of two to rescue a man and his two dogs from a burning home. The state dinged Camas and the CWFD for sending only two responders to calls initiated by home fire alarms. Members of the local firefighter union showed up at Camas City Council meetings throughout the spring and summer, calling for an increase to the CWFD’s staffing levels.

Discussions between Camas and Washougal leaders are ongoing, but some Camas City Council members have talked about going ahead with the new hires even if Washougal refuses to pay. Washougal leaders have always said they are willing to pay for their share of the new firefighters’ equipment costs, but have indicated that their city cannot afford to pay for 40 percent of the new positions’ salaries and benefits.

At the Dec. 3 council meeting, City Councilwoman Deanna Rusch said she believed the issue was critical.

“I’m going to, personally, go forward with it no matter what,” Rusch said Dec. 3, of passing a biennial budget that included the five fire department positions. “I’m not trying to be irresponsible with our taxpayers’ dollars, but the feedback from people I’ve talked to is that this is very important to our city … and that we need this no matter what (Washougal decides).”

After the Camas councilors passed their 2019-20 budget on Dec. 17, CWFD Fire Captain Kevin West spoke during the council’s public comment period.

“I wanted to thank you for recognizing the need for firefighters,” West told the city council.

If the new hires go through in 2019, it would be the first time Camas has approved such a significant increase to the fire department since 1997, when councilors approved hiring at least seven new firefighters to staff a second fire station, Swinhart said.

“The additional personnel allocated in the 2019-20 budget will definitely be a big help and we’re excited about the prospect,” Swinhart said. “More will be needed, however, and that’s why the finance department has projected needing at least another four personnel in the 2021-22 budget.”

If he does get final approval from council in early 2019, Swinhart said the four new firefighters would help lower overtime costs and increase staffing levels at Station 42. The new fire marshal would help the fire marshal’s office keep up with an influx of new construction inspections and “help them stay on top of existing occupancy inspections,” Swinhart added.

The new hires are a good step forward, the fire chief said, but will only get him halfway toward his goal of eliminating “cross-staffing” at Station 42, where responders must choose between taking an ambulance or a fire engine to a call.

“Those four new line personnel would get us about half the way there, but we’d need more in the next biennium to make it a reality,” Swinhart said of eliminating the cross-staffing.

The city’s growth north of Lacamas Lake in the “North Shore” area also presents future staffing concerns for the fire chief.

“We need to account for growth in the North Shore area and those staffing needs would be above and beyond our needs for alleviating cross-staffing at Station 42,” he said.

Even if councilors give approval for all five hires in January or February, the fire department would not have immediate relief. Capell said it typically takes about six months to get a new firefighter on board — about half the time it takes to get a new police officer up and running.

Other 2019-20 budget highlights

  • New police officers: The council approved an additional $175,151 in 2019 and $240,474 in 2020 to pay for two new full-time police officers, a half-time clerk, and a half-time code enforcement officer at the Camas Police Department. The city councilors also allocated $80,000 in 2019 to pay for two police vehicles. In total, the law enforcement allocations in the 2019-20 budget increased by 8.9 percent in 2019 and 2.9 percent in 2020, climbing from $5.2 million in 2018 to $5.65 million in 2019 and $5.8 million in 2020.
  • Parks maintenance: The city has increased the parks maintenance budget from the projected $965,668 spent in 2018 to $1,437,369 in 2019 and $1,311,736 in 2020. Increases in salaries and benefits will help support two new full-time parks maintenance workers. The budget includes $197,000 in 2019 and $75,000 in 2020 to help fund parks maintenance equipment.
  • Increase in general fund revenues: The city will see increased revenues in its general fund thanks to new construction, and property and sales taxes on new commercial projects. Tax revenues are expected to increase by 3 percent in 2019 and another 3.3 percent in 2020, jumping from a projected $16,473,853 in 2018 to $16,961,991 in 2019 and $17,521,943 in 2020. Likewise, new construction is fueling an increase in money coming into the city’s coffers, with permits and licenses revenue increasing from $966,317 in 2018 to $1,185,767 in 2019 and $1,880,380 in 2020; and revenue from charges for services climbing from $4.985 million in 2018 to $5.6 million in 2019 and $6.4 million in 2020. In total, the revenues coming into the city’s general fund are expected to increase by 5.6 percent in 2019 — from $23.56 million to $24.88 million — and by another 8.3 percent in 2020.
  • Cemetery improvements: The city will use a $100,000 grant in 2020 to build a security fence and electronic gate at the Camas cemetery.
  • Capital projects: The city has several street and parks projects planned for the 2019-20 biennium, including the purchase of legacy lands near Lacamas Lake, enhancements to Fallen Leaf Lake Park and Crown Park and projects on Brady, Larkspur, Lake and Everett streets.