Consultants urge cities of Camas, Washougal to form regional fire authority

RFA would address gaps in current Camas-Washougal Fire Department partnership, need voter approval

A little more than seven months have passed since consultants reviewing the Camas-Washougal Fire Department informed local city officials that the partnership that merged both cities’ fire departments in 2013, “has too many gaps to represent a sustainable model moving forward.”

“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,” Rob Moody, a consultant with the Tualatin-based Merina + CO, told Camas-Washougal officials in November 2021.

Now, the Merina consultants have brought a “preferred alternative” back for Camas-Washougal officials’ consideration.

Instead of working to correct the many gaps in the current interlocal agreement, Merina consultants told Washougal City Council members on June 13, and Camas City Council members on Monday, June 21, the officials should consider forming a regional fire authority (RFA) that would continue to provide fire and emergency medical services to the entire Camas-Washougal region.

“What’s become clear, is that the RFA provides the best opportunity to address many of the gaps facing the (fire department),” Jordan Henderson, of Merina, told Camas officials Monday.

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 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.

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 in November 2021. “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.”

Consultants said the current CWFD partnership also has no mechanisms to address future staffing, training and equipment or facility needs – including the need to replace two of the fire department’s three fire stations (Station 41 in downtown Camas and Station 43 in Washougal) within the next few years.

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.

Forming an RFA would require voter approval and will take extensive planning and voter education efforts by both cities, but would help address nearly all of these gaps, Henderson told Camas City Council members this week.

An RFA, Henderson said, would:

  • “Establish a unified and long-term vision for fire and EMS (services);
  • Provide for efficient, effective and informed decision-making regarding fire and EMS operations;
  • Establish accountability over fire and EMS budgets;
  • Establish continuity in governance of fire and EMS services;
  • Provide representation in governance for all community members;
  • Establish clear governance roles and responsibilities; and
  • Ensure consensus and transparency over fire and EMS policy-making and strategies.”

Under an RFA, the fire department would have more sustainable financing mechanisms, including the ability to pass fire, EMS and maintenance/operations levies; implement a fire benefit charge, assess utility fees and go out for capital bonds. Though the RFA would not have the authority to recommend or impose fire impact fees on new development, the cities of Camas and Washougal would retain that authority and could pass the impact fees on to the RFA, Henderson said.

The consultants said they have heard from members of both city councils, as well as fire department leaders and staff, that continuing a fire partnership of some sort between Camas and Washougal is critical to maintaining service levels in the area.

“One thing came out of all of our conversations, and that was that this partnership is necessary to maintain current service levels,” Henderson said Monday.

Cliff Free, the CWFD’s acting fire chief, agreed.

“(The partnership) is extremely valuable for all of East Clark County,” Free said Monday, noting that, if the Camas and Washougal fire departments went it alone, it would “reduce service levels” to not just Camas and Washougal but also residents in the East County Fire and Rescue district north of Camas and Washougal.

“We are all the protection that is really offered for all of East Clark County,” Free said of the CWFD and ECFR entities.

Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher said that, prior to the current interlocal agreement that merged the Camas and Washougal fire departments, Washougal often relied on Camas firefighters to respond through a mutual aid agreement.

Camas Councilmembers Greg Anderson, Bonnie Carter and Don Chaney — who sit on the fire department’s Joint Policy Advisory Council (JPAC) with Washougal City Council members — agreed the RFA was the best route for city officials to pursue.

“Our consultants gave us the exact solution, which I think is the best fit,” Chaney said of the RFA alternative. “It’s not perfect. There are issues, but I think they are easily remedied through purposeful deliberation on how we want the partnership to look.”

Anderson said he believed officials needed to look at the RFA as a means of setting up the joint fire department to “last forever.”

“Our current model is broken and it shows in many ways,” Anderson said Monday. “I believe an RFA is the best alternative. How it gets done and the fine print is up to us, the Camas Council and the Washougal Council and, ultimately, the voters. But if we get a framework out there, I think it’s within our reach.”

Carter said she was excited to get to this point in the years-long conversations about the fire department’s myriad staffing, governance and funding issues.

“We’ve been talking about this for some time … and it’s nice to have some direction going forward,” Carter said Monday. “I’m kind of excited to reach that stage because we’ve asked a lot of questions over the past number of years and are at that point now, with our partners, where we can collectively move forward.”

Officials in both cities have now said they want members of the JPAC to look into the RFA option presented by the Merina consultants.

“JPAC will reconvene and we will … begin to shape a path forward,” Camas’ interim city administrator, Jeff Swanson, said Monday, adding that Camas and Washougal officials will continue to work on a “parallel path” to address staffing and facilities needs within the current interlocal fire department agreement even while working on the RFA.

Swanson said it will likely take officials a year to work on an RFA agreement and “probably a good nine months” after that “to educate the community” about the RFA question on the ballot. See Kindness, page A2