Washougal to continue funding new firefighters

City won’t commit to paying its 40% share for two positions beyond 2020

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The city of Washougal will continue to fund the salary and benefit costs of two new Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) positions in 2020, but has not committed to the ongoing funding of the positions in 2021 and beyond.

Instead, city leaders hope a recently released “master plan” report can provide not only a long-term solution to the CWFD’s staffing issues, but a way for Washougal to continue — and even bolster — its investments in the fire department.

Washougal leaders discussed an updated amendment to the interlocal agreement between the cities of Camas and Washougal for the operation of the CWFD at their Dec. 2 workshop. City councilors will vote on the amendment in January, city manager David Scott said.

“This amendment continues the status quo in 2020 while we digest the master plan together and figure out what our options are and how we want to move forward together,” Scott said. “We’ll continue to fund our portion of the two spots and be a good-faith partner (with the city of Camas) while we explore our future in this program.”

Citing growth, a rising demand for services and a call from local firefighters to raise staffing levels, Camas City Council members approved the addition of two new firefighters and one fire inspector in January 2019, but Washougal leaders said their city could not afford to pay their share (40 percent) of the new hires’ costs.

“We had healthy conversations about that,” Scott said, “but the fact was that the council was not prepared to make cuts in other areas to fund the positions. Although we did raise more revenue, we wanted to earmark that for capital projects, areas that were identified as priorities when we engaged the community with feedback surveys. Also, we have a fire and emergency medical services levy lid lift, which will expire at the end of 2020. Asking the voters for a lid lift makes a lot of sense in the year when it expires as opposed to the year before it expires. The timing was off by one year.”

Camas leaders weren’t happy with their partners’ decision, and began talking about “unwinding” the joint fire department. After reviewing their 2018 budget performance, however, Washougal city council members agreed to pay for the positions from a reserve fund, giving $65,000 for the positions for three-fourths of 2019.

“The message didn’t change. We still couldn’t afford (to pay for the positions),” Scott said. “We have a fund called Fund 125 with reserve dollars from a now-expired levy lid lift for fire services. That fund balance had been spent over the years to balance our fire budget. We thought we’d have to spend all of that reserve in 2018, but 2018 ended up being better than we thought, so we had some money left over (in that fund), and we earmarked that leftover money to pay our share of the two positions.”

Earlier this year, Scott and city administrators proposed three options for funding the new firefighter positions in 2020: Not fund the positions; use general fund reserve dollars to fund the positions; or divert a portion of new revenues to fund the positions.

The councilors selected the third option, allocating an estimated $86,000 for the positions in 2020.

“In 2018 the council enacted new revenues which were collected for the first time in 2019,” Scott said. “Those revenues were earmarked to go to our parks, transportation facilities and capital project funds. They are general fund dollars, so they can be used for anything. This will slow down our capital program in 2020 just a bit, but not in a big way.”

Scott and Camas city administrator Pete Capell both said they have maintained solid working relationships with each other throughout this process.

“While we are disappointed in (Washougal) not being able to fully fund all of the positions we believe we need, we are glad they are able to continue the first two additional firefighters,” Capell said. “We have an excellent relationship with our partners in Washougal. We are growing communities, and the staffing needs of our fire department, as well as most of our other departments, continues to grow. We need to work together and develop a plan moving forward that will serve both cities’ needs. I expect it will be a lengthy process to finalize the path forward.”

Cities look to new fire department ‘master plan’ for guidance

Don Bivins, a senior associate with Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), and John Spencer, a financial analyst for ESCI, presented a 181-page master plan report on the CWFD’s short-term, mid-term and long-term needs to Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell and city councilors on Dec. 2 and to Washougal city employees and councilors on Dec. 9.

The plan highlighted several of the CWFD’s critical issues — including an average response time that is more than double the industry standard and an inability to respond to a two-story, single-family structure fire, even with mutual aid from other fire departments, within industry standards — and offered several solutions.

The report also called staffing levels at CWFD “excessively lean” and said the department has “facilities that are in need of upgrade or replacement.”

“I have confidence in Don and his organization to provide an accurate report,” Scott said. “However, every community has to decide for itself what level of service it’s willing to pay for. The program is very expensive. It’s a challenge for every community. We want a safe community and safe firefighters, and the master plan provides a good foundation for us to move forward and achieve those goals.”

Scott said the city of Washougal will ask voters to approve a replacement levy lid lift at the end of 2020 to provide for fire and emergency medical services (EMS).

“We figured out how to make it work in 2019 and 2020, but the community will have to make a decision for beyond that,” Scott said. “If we don’t do anything about it in 2020, in 2021 that lift will expire, and we’ll have a deficit in terms of funding existing services. (Fire and EMS) is an expensive program, but it’s obviously a critical program. It’s a very serious matter for both councils.”

Scott said that while he believes the CWFD can “survive long term,” its continued existence will “require some creativity.”

“The growth rate of the two communities is a little bit different. How does that factor in? How do we deal with the difference in the tax base? Are there different levels of service inside of the program? I don’t think that would be ideal,” he said.

Scott said that a shift to a regional fire authority — a model that essentially creates one taxing base instead of two — has been mentioned as a possibility.

“(Camas’) financial situation is very different than ours,” Scott said. “Everything else being equal, their tax base is larger than ours per capita. They get more property tax dollars we do. Their rate of new construction each year has exceeded our rate. They have been able to add positions in a number of areas, which has given them flexibility to be responsive to these issues. Our growth revenue is barely enough to keep up existing service levels. That in a nutshell is one of the big issues we need to figure out.”