ECFR nixes shared chief

Rural fire department ends deal with Camas in effort to cut costs

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A two-year agreement between the city of Camas and East County Fire & Rescue, which gave Fire Chief Nick Swinhart command over both the Camas-Washougal and East County fire departments, will end Feb. 1.

The East County Fire & Rescue (ECFR) board of commissioners voted in mid-December to terminate the shared fire chief agreement, citing a need for cost-savings in light of voters’ rejection of ECFR’s levy lid lift in the November 2018 midterm election.

“They (ECFR) need to start saving money, essentially,” Swinhart told Camas City Council members and Camas Mayor Shannon Turk on Monday, Jan. 7, during the council’s workshop.

In August 2018, ECFR Deputy Fire Chief Mike Carnes, who is set to become that department’s fire chief on Feb. 1, said the rural fire department was caught between a state-mandated 1-percent cap on annual property tax increases and rapidly increasing costs.

That’s why ECFR leaders asked voters to approve a fire levy lid lift in the November 2018 general election.

“We have worked very hard to live within our means,” Carnes said in August. “We’ve squeezed until we can’t squeeze anymore.”

The lid lift, which would have cost the owner of a $350,000 home an extra $6.13 each month, would have helped the district maintain its current levels of fire and emergency response services.

“The cost of providing services is getting more expensive,” Swinhart told The Post-Record in August. “I like to point out to people that, when we started our EMS levy here (in the late 1970s), the cost of an ambulance was about $35,000. Now, it’s over $200,000. But the EMS levy was 25 cents per $1,000 and now it’s 35 cents per $1,000.”

After voters rejected the levy lid lift 54 to 46 percent, ECFR leaders said they would need to reevaluate the fire department’s operations and find places to make cuts.

In a letter sent to Camas City Administrator Pete Capell on Dec. 19, the ECFR Board Chair Mike Taggart said the decision to terminate the shared-chief agreement came “in light of our recent lid lift attempt not passing,” and said the ECFR board had asked Swinhart to stay until Feb. 1 to help with labor negotiations.

“Please rest assured that this in no way reflects poorly on (Swinhart’s) performance or on our willingness to be partners with (the Camas-Washougal Fire Department),” Taggart wrote to Capell. “We look forward to continued discussions with you on the most efficient ways to serve our constituents. We also do not anticipate any changes to the many joint programs, trainings and responses that we run together.”

Taggart said the board also hoped Swinhart could fill in for Carnes on an “as-needed” basis, when the new fire chief is away for vacations or in trainings.

He also said the board and Swinhart have “full confidence in Chief Carnes’ ability to run the department,” and thanked Camas leaders for allowing the shared fire chief agreement for the past two years.

“We are especially grateful for the city’s generosity in helping us through a difficult period by allowing (Swinhart) to be our shared chief,” Taggart stated in his letter to Capell.

The shared fire chief arrangement began in October 2016. The initial agreement called for ECFR to pay Camas $3,000 a month for Swinhart’s services, which included 37 hours a month leading the rural fire department, which responds to fires and emergencies in unincorporated areas outside Camas and Washougal city limits.