In Camas, growth strains city services

Department leaders tell elected officials they need more people, equipment

It might be a bumpy road for Camas leaders rolling into the city’s 2019-20 biennium budget process.

On Monday evening, department heads gathered in front of Camas City Council members and Camas Mayor Scott Higgins at a special work session to discuss their most critical needs going into the short-term future.

“The department heads have really scaled it back over what we really need,” Camas City Administrator Pete Capell told elected city officials. “This is just the start. With the greater population in North Shore, (there will be) a greater draw on departments. So, this is really just phase one.”

To meet all of the department’s “phase one” needs, however, would cost the city an additional $5.1 million.

In 2016, the City Council passed a two-year budget of $183.14 million, including $3.1 million in reserves. The city is growing, but revenues are not keeping pace with increases in benefit and salary costs and the number of staff the city needs to maintain its basic services.

For example, on Monday, Capell told city councilors it would take another two parks employees to maintain Camas’ current city parks. Other departments have similar stories — to keep Camas “as is” will take more people.

City managers have warned Camas officials about a looming structural deficit in the recent past. In 2015, Capell and Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson discussed the city’s long-term financial concerns at a council workshop.

“In the near term we are fine, we don’t have any concerns about the budget,” Capell said in 2105. “My concerns are longer term, in that we are using new monies that come from growth, to pay for status quo, so we are not able to set-aside money or invest in what we need to serve that future growth.”

Camas, with a population of about 23,000 today, is expected to grow to 35,000 residents by 2035. Most of the city’s growth will come from developments north of Lacamas Lake, in the “North Shore” region.

On Monday, the council members heard from Community Development Director Phil Bourquin that the city must bring additional inspectors on board sooner rather than later, as the number of housing units coming into Camas more than doubled in the past year, jumping from 235 in 2017 to 500 in 2018.

The population boom looms large in the minds of many Camas department heads, particularly for those charged with keeping the public safe.

Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey said Monday that when he hears Bourquin talking about the success of his community development department, he worries how the police department will serve those new residents once they arrive.

“The staffing level we have now would have been perfect 20 years ago,” Lackey told city officials. “But we’re not the small town we were (then). … As the community grows, I hope we can grow with Camas.”

Lackey is asking city leaders to approve two new full-time police officers and a part-time records clerk, and part-time code enforcement officer. Those increases, Lackey said, aren’t going to fulfill all of his department’s needs, but will help relieve the pressure.

“We’re open 24/7. We never close. And we have 27 (officers), including myself,” the police chief said Monday. “My primary need is sworn police officers.”

Pressed by city council members, including Shannon Turk, Mayor Pro Tem Don Chaney and Steve Hogan about the true, long-term needs related to public and officer safety, the police chief said he could have easily “played the public safety card,” but that he knew all of the city’s department heads had also scaled down their budget requirements going into the 2019-20 budget process.

“This is not the end of our police needs,” Lackey said of his staffing increase request. “It doesn’t get us there in one fell swoop, but it is a good start. If we can check this off, and if my peers get some of their needs met … I think that’s a responsible, good start.”

Half of evaluated city service levels ‘not adequate’

Using a technology program that compares the city’s service levels to other cities as well as Camas’ own internal benchmarks, Huber Nickerson created a document for city council members outlining the performance status of the city’s service areas.

Of the 40 listed service levels marked either “adequate” or “not adequate,” more than half, 23, were “not adequate” and in need of improvement. The program showed Camas has deficiencies across the board — from not having enough employees to maintain its parks or streets to minimum staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and police unable to regularly meet their performance goal of responding to high priority calls within 6.2 minutes.

Councilman Steve Hogan said he appreciated the performance level chart, as it helped clarify some of the most pressing needs.

“This is by far the best city I have ever lived in or visited,” Hogan said. “But as much as we love it, it has a lot of needs.”

The councilman said the “not adequate” performance levels caught his eye, but he was even more concerned with safety issues — for the public as well as for the city’s staff. “It needs to be safety first, then these ‘not adequate’ needs,” Hogan said. “The needs come before the wants.”

Councilwoman Turk agreed, and said the council would likely have different views about what made something a “need” versus a “want.”

Hogan said he realized the city’s most pressing needs would cost “big money,” but said that is the price of living in a place like Camas.

“Frankly, it’s not cheap to live in a nice city like this,” Hogan said, adding he knew people on fixed incomes would “be hurting” if the city leaders raised utility rates to help pay for the staffing increases.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it’s going to be,” Hogan said.

Fire chief requests five new hires

Few department heads asked for more than two or three new hires, but all said those asks would meet their department’s most basic needs.

Fire Chief Nick Swinhart leads a team of firefighters, who have approached city leaders for more than four months, saying the city’s staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department are outdated and unsafe. Swinhart has said it would take an additional 12 to 15 full-time responders at a cost of about $1.3 million per year in additional salary and benefit costs to meet the fire union’s demands of staffing at least three firefighters on every engine call.

Of bigger concern to Swinhart, is the “cross-staffing” situation at the Grass Valley Fire Station 42 in north Camas, which requires responders to effectively “pick” which vehicle — fire engine or ambulance — they need per call.

“Cross-staffing of Station 42 has presented one of the largest challenges since it was built in 2001,” Swinhart told city leaders in April. “Since this station responds on medical calls over 80 percent of the time, their engine remains unstaffed for the duration of those calls. This may cause increased response times as the next unit has to come from Vancouver, downtown Camas or even Washougal.”

To address the cross-staffing at Station 42, the city would need to hire an additional eight to nine responders, at an annual cost of about $850,000, Swinhart said.

Eliminating cross-staffing at Station 42 and having a three-person engine company at all three stations, would require 17 to 20 new firefighters at a cost of $1.8 million each year.

Knowing that that kind of ask was far too great, Swinhart said he requested an increase in staffing levels that might be doable in the city’s 2019-20 budget.

The fire chief has requested an additional four full-time fire/EMS hires as well as an additional deputy fire marshal and $300,000 to purchase new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), as the department’s five-year SCBAs expire in 2019.

If the city funded the fire chief’s request in total, it would cost around $672,000 a year for the increased staffing needs and related benefits, and a one-time cost of $300,000 for the SCBAs.

The budget process has just started for the city’s 2019-20 biennium. Mayor Higgins, who announced he plans to resign at the end of September, and his staff, will draft a recommended budget before his departure, and city council members will discuss the budget and hold public hearings between October and December, when they will likely vote on the new two-year city budget.