Camas could go it alone for fire services

Partnership with Washougal hinges on funding for new firefighters

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A fire engine stands outside the Camas-Washougal Fire Department's Station 41 in downtown Camas in October 2020. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Two years after Camas City Council members discussed “unwinding” the interlocal agreement that merged the two cities’ fire departments in 2013, the call to re-evaluate the cities’ partnership and possibly dissolve the agreement is back on the table.

At issue is how the cities will fund staffing increases at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department — increases that firefighter union representatives and outside firefighting consultants have said are critical to meet the needs of a growing community.

Camas city councilors agreed to add four firefighter positions into the city’s 2019-20 budget and are considering adding another four firefighters in the 2021-22 budget.

Problems arose after Washougal city leaders said that city would not be able to pay its full share for the additional fire department hires.

Under the 10-year agreement that merged the two fire departments seven years ago, 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 of the costs.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told the Post-Record this week that Washougal city councilors “have generally acknowledged the need for enhanced staffing” at CWFD but are having trouble finding revenue to cover Washougal’s share of the new hires.

“Our issue currently is an inability to pay for staffing levels beyond the staffing profile identified in the (agreement), not an unwillingness (to increase staffing levels),” Scott said.

He added that Washougal would likely need to go to its voters to find “sustainable, long-term revenue” in order to pay for more firefighters.

Staffing is not the fire department’s only issue, however.

The fire department is short-staffed with aging apparatus, aging facilities, Camas City Councilwoman Ellen Burton — one of three Camas councilors who sits on the Joint Policy Advisory Committee that oversees the local fire department — noted at the Council’s regular meeting Monday, Nov. 16.

“We have a commitment to our citizens to deliver a high quality of services because this is a matter of life and death,” Burton said. “We take this extremely seriously.”

Camas councilmembers Greg Anderson and Don Chaney — the city’s other JPAC representatives — agreed.

Chaney said the concerns related to the fire department’s needs are “behemoth” and said he fears putting more burden on Camas taxpayers to fund a regional fire department would put strain on other city of Camas needs.

“This all comes from our citizens until we strike another agreement with our partners,” Chaney said, adding that he still believes there is value in a regional partnership.

“The model is not working for us,” Burton said Monday. “We can’t ask the citizens of Camas year after year to fund most of this service.”

The cities’ interlocal agreement has a termination clause allowing either city to end the agreement without cause, as long as they give two years’ notice.

On Monday, CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said city leaders and JPAC members were considering three options: keeping the status quo, which would keep the Camas-Washougal agreement intact through 2023; going back to having separate Camas and Washougal fire departments; and considering a regional partnership that could include the East County Fire & Rescue fire district.

Camas City Administrator Jamal Fox said he and Scott, his counterpart in Washougal, were planning to have a facilitated conversation with all involved parties to reflect on the partnership and figure out how to move forward.

“We need to get that done sooner rather than later,” Fox said Monday.

Scott chimed in during the Camas Council’s Zoom meeting on Monday and said Washougal leaders are open to a variety of options, including the three Swinhart mentioned.

“Funding is the critical issue,” Scott said. “Our Council is prepared to explore those three options. If there was a hybrid option, we would be open to that.”

Kevin Bergstrom, president of the local firefighters’ union that includes CWFD and ECFR firefighters, said Monday that he believed the partnership between Camas and Washougal made the fire department stronger.

Choosing to go back to the two separate fire departments, Bergstrom said, would likely have unintended negative consequences in Camas and Washougal.

“The efficiencies the merger realized would be completely reversed,” Bergstrom said. “And you’d find that undoing the partnership completely would be disastrous to the organization.”

The union president added that he believed a regional fire authority “is a viable option” and something city leaders should explore.

Scott said Washougal city councilors have not discussed the “going back” option.

“The Washougal Council is committed to this very important partnership and program, and ensuring that a high level of service is provided to our communities,” Scott told the Post-Record Tuesday. “We are in this together and look forward to a robust options analysis that will give us a clear path forward, which can then be presented to our voters for their consideration.”

The Camas JPAC members said they would like to see some movement on the issue by February 2021.

“The longer we keep kicking this can, the worse this problem is going to get,” Anderson said. “This has gone on too long … this needs to get resolved, and we need to get out of the muck we’re in. … We want to have a roadmap — not necessarily an executable plan — by Feb. 1.”

Chaney agreed, saying he considered Washougal “good partners,” but that Camas could not afford to keep paying Washougal’s share for new firefighters.

“We can’t continue to put this on our citizens,” Chaney said. “Maybe we can find an outcome that takes us all off the hot plate.”