Fire funding could burn cities’ partnership

Camas considers ‘unwinding’ fire department after Washougal says it can’t pay for more firefighters

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A Camas-Washougal Fire Department engine responds to a call in downtown Camas in 2017. (Post-Record file photo)

Five years into their 10-year fire department collaboration with the city of Washougal, some Camas leaders are beginning to wonder if they might do better on their own.

“How quickly could we unwind this thing if we had to?” Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan asked Camas City Administrator Pete Capell at the city’s workshop on Nov. 19.

Hogan was referring to the city’s interlocal agreement with Washougal, which created the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in 2013.

Under the 10-year agreement, Camas agreed to be the fire department’s main funding agency and pay roughly 60 percent of the department’s costs, leaving Washougal to shoulder about 40 percent.

A termination clause allows either city to end the agreement without cause, but they must give two years’ notice. That’s because, according to Capell, it would take roughly two years to, as Hogan put it, “unwind” the partnership.

“Dissolving the interlocal agreement is difficult,” Capell told council members on Nov. 19. “We have shared resources, facilities … it takes about two years to unwind everything.”

Talks of undoing the agreement, which took two years to stitch together starting in 2011, began after Washougal leaders said they could not fund their city’s share of the four new firefighters and one new fire inspector Camas hopes to hire in 2019.

Firefighters say department ‘seriously understaffed’ as calls increase, staffing levels stagnate

Camas councilors have been trying to respond to local firefighters, who say the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) is seriously understaffed.

Over the past decade, as Camas has increased its population base and planned major developments in the city’s northern region, the fire department’s staffing levels have stagnated. At the same time, calls for service are on the increase, with the number of emergency medical service calls coming into the fire department jumping from 2,693 calls in 2008 to 3,630 calls in 2017 — a 35 percent increase — and fire calls increasing by 40 percent, from 100 in 2008 to more than 140 in 2017.

Firefighters have urged city leaders in Camas to hire enough responders to staff every call with a minimum of three firefighters.

In April, CWFD Chief Nick Swinhart told Camas City Council members it would cost about $1.3 million per year to hire the 12 to 15 full-time responders needed to ensure three people on each engine at all three of Camas’ fire stations.

Swinhart said an even bigger problem may be the situation at the Grass Valley Fire Station 42 in north Camas, which requires responders to effectively “pick” which vehicle — the fire engine or the ambulance — they need for each call.

“Cross-staffing of Station 42 has presented one of the largest challenges since it was built in 2001,” Swinhart told councilors 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 eliminate the cross-staffing at Station 42 and ensure a three-person engine company at all three stations, Camas would have to hire 17 to 20 full-time firefighters at a cost of $1.8 million each year — a nearly 20-percent increase in the fire department’s annual $9.5 million operating budget.

Camas councilman ‘disappointed’ by Washougal’s decision

Attempting to mitigate the fire department’s staffing needs, Camas councilors proposed hiring two firefighter-paramedics, two firefighter-EMTs and one fire inspector.

After hearing that the majority of councilors were in favor of adding the new firefighter positions to the city’s proposed 2019-20 budget, then-mayor pro tem Don Chaney and Capell met with staff from the State Auditor’s Office to see if Camas could pay for the new positions without Washougal’s assistance.

The state auditors said that was possible and, according to Capell’s staff report to the city councilors, “agreed that both parties would benefit from the agreement; Washougal would see reduced overtime expenses from the additional personnel and Camas would have reduced overtime expenses and provide additional staffing at Station 42 some of the time.”

Still, Chaney said he had issues with asking Camas to shoulder the entire cost.

“I heard the consensus that we wanted to support the new firefighters, but I had an issue with impacting other departments in our city … and compelling our citizens to pay (the full cost of hiring the firefighters, about $400,000 per year),” Chaney said. “I was looking for ways to mitigate that.”

Capell said Camas staff had come up with a few options — including hiring the four new firefighters and one new fire inspector in 2019, with Camas shouldering 100 percent of the labor costs that year and Washougal reviewing the staffing in 2019 and beginning that city’s payments in 2020 or 2021; splitting the staffing levels between 2019 and 2020, to decrease costs for both cities in any one year; or having Washougal pay their share of the costs in 2019 and 2020 by allowing the city to defer its payment to the fire department’s reserves.

“Washougal consistently did not want reserves to pay for operating costs,” Capell told Camas councilors on Nov. 19. “They are not currently supportive of participating in any of those scenarios.”

Washougal City Manager David Scott said there may have been a miscommunication between the two cities regarding how Washougal funds that reserve.

“We have not been operationally funding our reserve,” Scott said. “We don’t spend our reserves on operational expenses. A community could choose to do that, but once you’ve spent those reserves, they’re gone.”

The announcement that Washougal was not able to fund the firefighter positions in 2019, or even to give hope for funding in 2020, seemed to dismay the majority of Camas City Council members, and several councilors indicated they might be willing to look at “unwinding” the interlocal agreement ahead of the 2023 expiration date.

“I’m disappointed (by) Washougal’s decision,” Camas Councilman Greg Anderson said. “It’s a rock and a hard place where we’re at, not having a commitment (from Washougal) on paper or even a handshake. But looking at our citizens and saying we’re not taking care of them when we could … I can’t handle that again. I want to do the right thing. That’s where I’m at.”

Chaney, who recently ended his stint as mayor pro tem after city councilors appointed former City Councilwoman Shannon Turk as Camas’ new mayor, agreed.

“I’m frankly disappointed that, at a minimum, our partners couldn’t (defer reserve payment to help fund the new firefighters),” Chaney said. “That causes me some consternation about how viable our partnership is with them. I can’t believe (Washougal) couldn’t defer that payment so we could go to our citizens and say, ‘our partners are paying their fair share.'”

Councilwoman Deanna Rusch also agreed that Camas should proceed with the new firefighter hires despite Washougal’s inability to pay their share of the labor costs.

“I’d be in favor of creating these positions and getting people up and running,” Rusch said, referring to the four firefighters and one fire inspector. “It’s disappointing when you want a partnership to work … but this isn’t the first time with an interlocal that someone has not been able to step up. It could happen again, in five, seven years. And that’s my concern.”

Capell said, in Washougal’s defense, city leaders felt they hadn’t had enough time to fully understand the need for the additional firefighters.

“They didn’t think there was enough information to justify the need,” Capell said of Washougal City Council members.

But Camas councilors didn’t buy that argument.

“They heard what we heard,” Chaney said of Washougal leaders and staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department. “They knew it.”

“It surprises me that they say they didn’t know it was coming,” Rusch said.

Scott said Washougal leaders were aware that the CWFD firefighters had been attending Camas City Council meetings following the Feb. 14 fire, but that Washougal councilors didn’t realize Camas councilors wanted to increase the staffing levels until they heard about it in a summertime meeting.

“We’ve certainly been aware of the issues with our mutual firefighters,” Scott said. “The firefighters have come to a couple of our meetings (in Washougal), but their comments were more about partnership. I don’t recall them requesting additional staffing. … We were not aware of the (proposal for) staffing increases until this summer.”

Washougal councilor ‘skeptical of need’ for more firefighters

Washougal City Councilman Brent Boger, who sits on the cities’ Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC), which covers fire department issues, said he and other Washougal councilors needed more time to better understand the need for additional firefighters.

“I’m skeptical of the need for this. We went for 30 years where we had adequate coverage on the firetrucks and finally had one thing happen,” Boger told The Post-Record this week, referring to a Feb. 14, 2018, fire in Camas.

The Feb. 14 call came to the fire department as a home fire alarm call rather than a 911 call, triggering the department’s policy of sending two firefighters instead of three or more.

Although most home alarm calls turn out to be false alarms, the Feb. 14 call was a real structure fire — leaving just two responders to rescue a man and his dogs from the burning home.

About one week after the Feb. 14 fire, Adam Brice, president of the local firefighters’ union, filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) stating that union leaders feel the local fire department’s low staffing levels have caused an unsafe work environment.

L&I agreed, saying the fire department and city of Camas were in violation of state code and imposing more than $4,000 in fines.

Boger said, for Washougal leaders, the issue came down to a matter of cost versus benefit.

“It’s more important in Washougal that we have adequate police, code enforcement … we have other priorities,” he said.

Asked what an “unwinding” of the interlocal agreement might mean for Washougal, Boger said it wouldn’t be a positive picture.

“It would be a mess,” he said of dissolving the interlocal fire department agreement. “Washougal does not have the tax base Camas does, so it would be more difficult for us.”

In the end, Camas councilors agreed they favored putting the new firefighter positions into the city’s proposed 2019-20 budget. And Hogan said he believed the city should start to “get real serious” about ending the interlocal agreement with Washougal if that city refused to pay for its share of the new firefighter costs.

After reviewing the Camas workshop video, Boger said he was “very surprised” by the councilors’ comments.

“I was surprised before because I had some meetings with Camas councilors and they were not inclined to add the firefighters,” Boger stated in an email sent Nov. 27. “Now they seem to be headed toward a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.”

Like Scott, Boger believes deferring Washougal’s portion of the reserve payment “is not a sound financial practice.”

Scott added that he does not believe Camas leaders actually intend to start the dissolution process.

“I’m aware that they have concerns,” the Washougal city manager said. “They’re wanting to move forward with growth in the program and we’ve said ‘no’ to that, so that causes a little bit of an issue. But I watched the tape (of the Nov. 19 workshop) and I didn’t walk away from that viewing with the sense that they were going to invoke the termination clause.”

Scott added that, if Washougal councilors decide to pursue funding mechanisms for the new firefighter hires, they may ask voters to lift the lid on Washougal’s fire operations levy.

“We’re looking forward to working with our partner to come to resolution on this,” Scott said. “We understand their concerns and hope they understand ours.”

Camas will continue a public hearing on its proposed 2019-20 budget at 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 3, at Camas City Hall.