C-W fire department consultants looking for ‘sustainable, equitable’ solutions to financing woes

Camas, Washougal officials will hold a joint meeting to discuss fire department needs this fall

Consultants hired by the city of Camas in May to review the 9-year-old merger of Camas’ and Washougal’s fire departments say they hope to present an analysis of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department as well as “sustainable and equitable” alternatives to officials by the end of the year.

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 on May 17.

Rob Moody and Courtney Seto, with Merina + CO, updated Camas City Council members on their team’s progress during the Council’s work session on Tuesday, Sept. 7.

City leaders in Camas and Washougal have said they hope the consultants will 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.”

“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 main funding agency, paying about 60 percent of the department’s costs, while Washougal would pay 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 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.

On Tuesday, Moody told Camas council members his team would evaluate the department’s current situation as well as proposed alternatives using criteria that looked at making the department more equitable and sustainable.

“We believe they have to be balanced,” Moody said. “One does not outweigh the other. If it’s sustainable, but not deemed fair, well, it’s still not fair. If it’s equitable, but only lasts a year or two, that doesn’t solve our problem either.”

The solution also needs to be supported by both cities’ leaders, administrators and staff members working for the fire department and the communities in Camas and Washougal, Moody said, and needs to have a clear organizational structure to “provide consistent policy and direction and oversight to fire department) administration.”

Under the current interlocal agreement that merged the two fire departments in 2013, Moody said, there is some “tension in the organization,” due to the fact that both cities are involved in some of the decision-making for the department, and that the current fire chief, Nick Swinhart, has to answer to both cities’ officials, managers and administrators.

“We want to get back to a clear definition of what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are,” Moody said.

The consultants are planning to send surveys to city officials in Camas and Washougal within the next few weeks to better understand city leaders’ priorities for future fire and emergency medical services in Camas-Washougal, and hold a joint Camas-Washougal work session later this fall “to build consensus … and have a clear picture of what is important to each city and community as a whole,” Moody said.

Ellen Burton, Camas’ interim mayor, said she felt the Merina + CO consultants had provided “a solid base” to move forward on making some decisions about the future of the fire department.

Camas City Councilman Don Chaney, a former Camas police chief, said the Merina + CO presentation had given him hope and confidence that the cities would be able to find a solution.

“Sometimes we get criticized for using consultants. For me, this is a perfect example of why we do,” he said.

Chaney also said he is looking forward to seeing how the consultants will incorporate the fire master plan into their assessment and recommendations. The fire master plan is a December 2019 report that offered solutions to several critical issues facing the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, including “excessively lean” staffing levels, “facilities that are in need of upgrade or replacement,” an average response time that is more than double the industry standard.

Washougal officials respond to consultant report

Merina + CO consultants Jordan Henderson and Courtney Seto presented the results of their initial conversations regarding the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s interlocal agreement to Washougal officials during an Aug. 23 Washougal City Council workshop.

Henderson told Washougal officials the fire department has been plagued by “communication challenges” and said leaders of both cities have expressed concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of the department.

“There’s increasing operational costs and questions around how much of those are necessary to deliver services, going back to that ‘wants versus needs,'” he said.

Washougal City Manager David Scott said he is “pleased with (Merina’s) work so far” and that “they are following the process that they proposed to us and tracking well on that.”

“I think it is important to note that the first theme (Henderson) mentioned is that he consistently heard that all parties consider this to be a valuable partnership,” Scott said. “This provides a strong foundation for our work together on finding the best path forward for the future of the program. Our fire and EMS program is a vital component of the overall service portfolio the two communities provide. It is necessary for us to work through the issues (that were brought up by the consultants) so that whatever option is pursued for the future of the program will be successful.”

Scott added that the program “is one of the most complex issues” that he’s encountered during his career due because of the two cities’ differing growth scenarios, funding capabilities, and service level perceptions; the multiple perspectives of two councils, city and department administrative leadership members, and department team members; leadership turnover, partly caused by election results; and multiple governance and delivery models that can be deployed to provide the services.

“Notwithstanding these complexities, I believe both councils are committed in this process to a thorough evaluation of the options for the future of this program and ultimately reaching agreement on and pursuing implementation of the best option,” Scott said.

Council member David Stuebe questioned the consultant’s proposed timeline, saying that he wants to “make sure that we’re not missing something and taking too much time to get to the solution.”

“We shouldn’t be in a vacuum where we have a session and Camas has a session,” Stuebe said. “This is a joint effort that we’re trying to bring together as a community. All of the players need to be in the same room, and (the conversations would) be more efficient. I think we can save a lot of time instead of going back and forth (consultants serving as) middlemen. We need to come up with a solution.

“All of your little bullet points are all great. Those are all issues that we need to deal with. But we need to find out what’s working, what we need to fix, how to save money and how to be more efficient with time. … I still think if you bring everybody in that same room, we can get those answers way more efficiently and start making decisions on this.”

Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said that finding a solution to the city’s fire and EMS funding is the “No. 1 challenge that we have to face.”

“I am so appreciative of the work (Merina + CO) is doing, and I think they’re absolutely on the right track, trying to have that higher perspective and get input from everyone,” she said. “I’m excited to see as this goes on some of the options (they come up with) to make it sustainable. As we know, public safety is probably our No. 1 priority.”

Council member Paul Greenlee, however, told his colleagues they should refrain from viewing fire and EMS funding as a “be-all and end-all.”

“Fire and EMS service is a department within a much larger organization,” Greenlee said. “Too often we talk about fire and EMS in isolation. It isn’t, especially when we talk about funding. Fire and EMS cannot be considered in isolation. For the city and its people, fire is a tradeoff in a very real sense. Revenues that are spent on fire and EMS are taken away from police, from streets, from parks, from planning, and all of the other things that the city does.”

“Some appear to think that fire and EMS are the be-all and end-all for our city, and that’s false. That’s a lie,” Greenlee added. “We cannot allow fire and EMS to become a revenue black hole. We have to consider the much larger budget anytime we’re talking about the resources that might or might not be available for fire and EMS.”