Cities agree to extend interlocal fire agreement through January

Deal that formed joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department in 2013 was set to expire Dec. 31, 2023

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Less than two weeks before a 10-year agreement merging the Camas and Washougal fire departments was set to expire Dec. 31, officials in both cities have agreed to extend the interlocal agreement (ILA) for one month.

“This was a technical procedure to amend the agreement so that discussions could continue into 2024,” Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachal told The Post-Record this week.

On Monday, Dec. 18, following its regular meeting and a closed executive session to discuss potential litigation, the Camas City Council returned to Council chambers and voted on the Camas-Washougal Fire Department ILA amendment.

The Council voted unanimously to extend the ILA that created the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in December 2013, through Jan. 31, 2024. The original ILA was set to expire at the end of this month.

In anticipation of the ILA’s expiration, Camas and Washougal officials and fire department leaders have spent the past two years trying to nail down details for a new ILA that would, ideally, maintain a joint fire department and provide the same level of fire and emergency medical services Camas-Washougal residents are used to, without straining Washougal’s more limited revenue resources.

Under the current ILA, the cities split the fire department’s costs, with the city of Camas paying around 61% and the city of Washougal paying around 39% of the costs.

Both cities use their general fund — which also pays for things like streets, police and parks — to fund the joint fire department and use voter-approved levies to help pay for the fire department’s emergency medical services.

In recent years, however, Washougal officials have said their city cannot afford the staffing increases Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) leaders have said are necessary to keep up with the area’s growing population and service needs.

In June, Camas Mayor Steve Hogan presented options for moving forward to the Camas City Council — the body responsible for making financial decisions related to the joint fire department.

“The intent is to take the existing (Camas-Washougal Fire Department) and assist them toward a future with a regional fire authority,” Hogan said in June, adding that the “ramp up time” to a new regional fire authority (RFA), which will need to be approved by Camas-Washougal voters, would likely take three years to implement.

“It will take a planning committee a year or two to create the structure for this,” Hogan said of the RFA.

Until then, Hogan said officials wanted to come up with a solution that would satisfy Camas and Washougal residents and maintain fire and EMS services.

In the end, Camas officials said they backed an option that kept the two fire departments as one entity, and would alleviate some of Washougal’s funding stress, with Camas paying 63% of the CWFD’s costs and Washougal paying 37%.

“We were hoping to move the funding mechanism closer to what the RFA would reflect,” Camas Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, who sits on the CWFD Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC), said in June. “But, in analyzing this … that was a big hit to our general fund. That’s why we continued to look at other options. The 63-37 split was a little bit more palatable to Camas and still financially responsible.”

On Monday, Camas City Council members voted unanimously to approve the amendment extending the CWFD agreement through the end of January 2024, and included a provision that the City could terminate the agreement if Washougal officials did not sign the agreement by Dec. 27.

Rachal, speaking for the city of Camas, explained: “Due to the nature of the ILA, there will always be language included that discusses termination, as this is required. However, the amendment was made in good faith that both parties would be able to come to a more comprehensive agreement in the near future, and the city (of Camas) looks forward to continuing those discussions.”

The amendment also states that the city of Washougal has, as of Dec. 15, “remitted payment in full for both the balance of the 2022 assessment of their shared expense … and the estimated balance of the 2023 assessment.”

Rachal said Washougal officials signed off on the agreement Tuesday, Dec. 19.

With the financial disputes now resolved, Camas and Washougal officials must come to agreement on non-financial parts of the agreement joining the two fire departments.

On Monday, Camas City Councilman John Nohr, who also serves as fire chief in the Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue district in north Clark County, weighed in on the ILA amendment and ongoing fire department negotiations between the two cities.

“JPAC worked extensively over the last 24 months to (extend) the ILA and come to agreement on what each party owed, per the ILA,” Nohr said, adding that Camas officials did not “take lightly” the thought of terminating the joint fire department agreement. “I appreciate that we are able to move into January and complete the negotiations we were not able to complete because of the financial negotiations.”