Camas OKs consultant to review fire merger

City officials have clashed over funding formula for joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department

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Emergency vehicles are parked outside the Camas-Washougal Fire Department Fire Station 41 in downtown Camas in May 2020. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

The city of Camas has selected an outside consultant to review the merger of Camas’ and Washougal’s fire departments.

The Tualatin, Oregon-based Merina + CO will meet with stakeholders, conduct a facilitated analysis of the decade-long partnership between the cities’ fire departments that formed the existing Camas-Washougal Fire Department in December 2013, and develop recommendations for the future of fire and emergency medical services in the Camas-Washougal area.

The Camas City Council unanimously approved the $94,770 contract with Merina + CO at the council’s Monday, May 17 meeting.

City leaders in Camas and Washougal hope the consultants will help find a solution that allows the fire department to meet the community’s growth and increased needs without putting 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 this week. “Both cities have expressed frustration at their inability to fund the necessary growth of the fire department.”

City council members in Camas and Washougal have urged the type of facilitated review that Merina + CO will undertake over the next several months, Swinhart said.

“We believe the agreement has been very good for both cities,” the fire chief added, “but there have been some bumps in the road, particularly when it comes to the cost-sharing formula being equitable. There are concerns on both sides, in both cities.”

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 about 40 percent of the costs.

Officials in both cities began to question the 10-year 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 just 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.

“Our issue currently is an inability to pay for staffing levels beyond the staffing profile identified in the (interlocal agreement), not an unwillingness,” Scott said in 2020, adding that Washougal would likely need to go to its voters to find “sustainable, long-term revenue” in order to pay for more firefighters.

Staffing costs are not the only issue plaguing the fire department merger, however.

The Camas city councilors who sit on the fire department’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee — Councilman Greg Anderson, Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Burton and Councilman Don Chaney — pointed out in 2020 that the fire department is not only short-staffed but also has issues with aging apparatus and facilities.

“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 in 2020. “We take this extremely seriously.”

Chaney has said the concerns related to the fire department’s needs are “behemoth” and warned that putting more burden on Camas taxpayers to fund a regional fire department could strain the city’s other services.

“This all comes from our citizens until we strike another agreement with our partners,” Chaney said in 2020, adding that he still believed there is value in a regional partnership.

“The model is not working for us,” Burton said in 2020. “We can’t ask the citizens of Camas year after year to fund most of this service.”

Chaney said this week that the issue was more complex than just finding a more equitable cost-sharing agreement between Camas and Washougal.

“There are truly three partners in this,” Chaney said, adding that the consultants would also need to review the fire department’s partnership with East County Fire and Rescue, which provides fire service in the rural areas north of Camas and Washougal and has an agreement with CWFD for EMS and ambulance services.

“It’s a regional issue,” Chaney pointed out on Monday, “and we might be able to look at some alternative forms of governance.”

Burton added that JPAC members, which include Washougal representatives, backed the decision to hire Merina + CO for the facilitated review of the fire department merger.

“The joint committee felt very comfortable that our staff would be consulted and involved throughout the process,” Burton said.