Consultants: Camas-Washougal fire merger ‘not sustainable’

Merina staff evaluate alternatives to CWFD, will meet with officials again in early 2022

A nearly decade-long partnership between Camas and Washougal that formed the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in 2013, “has too many gaps to represent a sustainable model moving forward,” consultants told Camas and Washougal city officials during a Nov. 18 Zoom meeting.

“Some of you are probably saying, ‘Well, duh, that’s why we’re here,'” Rob Moody, a consultant with the Tualatin-based Merina + CO, which has been reviewing the CWFD partnership since May 2021, told local officials. “We needed to go through these steps … and data to back up what many of you have been thinking or feeling for some time now. Now we have those data-fed conclusions to support the feeling that the current model isn’t workable.”

The Merina consultants led officials through a nearly three-hour presentation that delved into the CWFD’s governance, finances, service to the community, sustainability and equity for the cities of Camas and Washougal.

“We established a key set of criteria to identify where it’s working and where it’s not,” Jordan Henderson, a consultant with Merina, said. “It was important to set a baseline … to compare alternatives moving forward.”

Camas City Council members approved the $94,770 contract with Merina in May, and said they hoped the consultants would be able to come up with a solution that allows the fire department to meet the community’s growth and increased needs without putting the bulk of the financial strain on any one jurisdiction.

“The cost-sharing formula that forms the basis of the CWFD merger has created friction in the partnership, and has, at times, threatened the continuance of it,” CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told city councilors in May. “Both cities have expressed frustration at their inability to fund the necessary growth of the fire department.”

Under the 10-year agreement that merged the two fire departments in 2013, 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 40 percent of the costs.

Officials in both cities began to question the merger in 2018, after Camas city councilors agreed to add four new firefighter positions into the city’s 2019-20 budget. Though most Washougal councilors agreed the fire department was short-staffed and the positions were needed, Washougal officials said their city could not afford to pay for 40 percent of the new hires. The issue came up again in 2020, after Camas leaders again said they were considering adding another four firefighters to the roster in the 2021-22 budget.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told the Post-Record in 2020 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.

The Merina consultants’ analysis showed Washougal city officials were right to worry about the fire department’s financial burden on that city.

“For Washougal, it’s pretty telling,” Moody told city officials on Nov. 18. “Based on what we believe the city of Washougal could raise in property taxes given the current rates … (paying the city’s share of the CWFD partnership in 2023 through 2028) is not sustainable for the city of Washougal. In order to come up with money for contributions to Camas, (Washougal) would have to increase tax rates or come up with another source of revenue.”

As it stands now, more than 60 percent of Washougal’s property tax contributions — $1.53 out of nearly $2.50 per $1,000 assessed property value (APV) — go toward paying the city’s fire and emergency medical services (EMS) costs. Camas, by comparison, uses less than 40 percent of its property tax contributions — $1.18 out of $3 per $1,000 APV — to pay for fire and EMS.

The consultants also showed Washougal residents pay a higher percentage of their overall income for fire and emergency medical services. In 2020, the average Camas household paid $521 for fire and EMS services, while the average Washougal household paid $498. Because Camas households have a higher median income than their neighbors in Washougal — $111,584 versus $91,100 — Camas residents paid a lower percentage of their income for fire and EMS services than Washougal residents: 0.47 percent (Camas) versus 0.55 percent (Washougal).

Consultants said the current CWFD partnership also has no mechanisms to address future staffing, training and equipment or facility needs.

In October, city officials heard from another group of consultants hired to assess the CWFD’s capital facilities needs, that the fire department will need to replace two fire stations and build a third within the next decade.

“There is a gap for capacity needs that the model isn’t currently prepared to address,” Henderson told city officials on Nov. 18.

The Merina consultants found several other deficits in the current fire partnership model, including:

  • No unified, long-term vision for cost-sharing, addressing growth or the communities desired service levels, which “results in limited trust, capacity to problem-solve; feelings of inequity; ineffective decision-making; and challenges for CWFD leadership to implement operational strategies;”
  • A partnership in which governance responsibilities are not distributed proportionally;
  • An inability to “build long-term capacity to meet increased service demands in line with community needs and priorities;”
  • A need for enhanced communication “to address community voices;” and
  • The inability to “mitigate the impacts of high turnover” within local governments when voters elect new city council members and mayors.

The consultants’ report did, however, contain a few pieces of good news: CWFD received high marks for maintaining a high level of service, finding operational efficiencies and providing the same level of service for all community members.

But when it came to the department’s long-term sustainability, the consultants recommended finding an alternative to the current interlocal agreement.

“You could disband the partnership and let each community go its own way, but we’ve heard from all of you that’s not the expected result or something anybody is particularly interested in,” Moody told city officials.

Instead, the consultants are now working on evaluating three primary alternatives: forming a regional fire authority; creating a fire district (with the possibility of combining with the East County Fire and Rescue district) and finding an alternative interlocal agreement that could include forming a governmental nonprofit organization to oversee the fire department.

The Merina consultants will review the various alternatives using the same criteria they used to measure the existing fire partnership’s long-term sustainability and will review their results with members of the JPAC in the new year before presenting the information to Camas-Washougal mayors and city councilmembers in February 2022.

Molly Coston, Washougal’s outgoing mayor who voters recently elected to remain on the city council, said she looked forward to seeing the future “alternatives” presentation.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve gotten to this stage without a lot of robust discussion, especially for the Washougal Council, is that we’re still digesting this data,” Coston said. “Maybe we can find something equitable and fair that we both agree will work for us now and in the future.”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said he would like to see any future alternative to the current fire department provide the same level of service CWFD regularly delivers to the community.

“The fire and EMS system we have is outstanding, and the people working for us are dedicated to service,” Hogan said. “If we move to a new form, I would like to see that standard they have maintained — and the fact (is), they’re striving to get better all the time.”

Camas City Councilman Don Chaney, a former Camas police chief, agreed with Hogan.

“Our citizens get accustomed to a level of service, and my fear is that, if we don’t find a way to manage this in a truly effective way, we’ll have to impact parks and (recreation) or other services that come from the general fund, or ask our citizens for more money,” Chaney said.

Camas City Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said she thought the baseline information the consultants presented on Nov. 18, would help city officials make a decision about an alternative to the current CWFD partnership.

“The baseline presented today is good data,” Carter said. “We have an excellent fire department and we have to figure out how to maintain that.”

Coston added that she hoped all of the city leaders present at the Nov. 18 meeting — which also included incoming city councilors and Washougal’s new mayor — would keep an open mind.

“Fire and medical are two of the top services we as electeds have to offer our citizens,” Coston said. “We are fortunate to have an outside company come in and give us an unbiased or fresh perspective on strategies we could use to improve that service.”