Camas mulls hiring PR firm ahead of Camas-Washougal Fire Department bond, levy renewals

Interim city administrator: Camas is ‘behind the eight ball’ when it comes to replacing critical fire facilities, vehicles

The Camas City Council is considering hiring a public relations firm to help the Camas-Washougal Fire Department work on messaging and public education ahead of a fire facilities bond and emergency medical services (EMS) levy renewals that could come before Camas-Washougal voters later this year.

If the Camas City Council, the financial decision-making body for the joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD), approves the $11,666-per-month contract with the Snohomish, Washington-based Liz Loomis Public Affairs firm, it would kickstart the process of asking Camas-Washougal voters to approve a capital bond to replace failing fire stations and worn-out fire engines in the August 2023 primary election and placing both cities’ EMS levy renewals on the November 2023 general election.

Loomis’ public relations (PR) firm specializes in providing strategic communications to taxpayer-funded entities working on bond and levy projects and has helped several Vancouver-area fire departments refine their bond and levy messaging.

“This is specifically for public affairs support — for messaging, strategy, production of materials, and so forth,” Jeff Swanson, Camas’ interim city administrator, told Camas City Council members during their workshop on Jan. 3, adding that, although Loomis may have opinions about what should go into the bond and levy renewal ballot measures based on public sentiment and “what has a higher likelihood of passing,” it will ultimately be up to officials on the Camas and Washougal city councils to determine exactly what they are asking of voters in both cities.

“Her role is helping us with messaging for this,” Swanson said of Loomis.

“As you’re aware, from multiple conversations we’ve had … we have two fire stations that need to be replaced and a capital facilities plan that indicates they should be replaced in the next year or two,” Swanson told Camas officials on Jan. 3. “We are a little behind the eight ball. We should already be proceeding with construction.”

Not only does the joint fire department have two stations in critical need of replacement within the next two years — including the department’s headquarters in downtown Camas — but studies have also shown the CWFD has some critical apparatus needs.

“All five (of the CWFD’s fire engines) have been identified as needing to be replaced or placed in back-up status,” Swanson told officials during the Jan. 3, workshop.

The CWFD has one fire engine on order, which is expected to be delivered in 2024, Swanson said, adding that the time between ordering and receiving a new fire engine is currently about 36 months.

“Which means, we could order (a new fire engine) today, and three years from now, we’ll see that piece of rolling stock arrive in our city,” Swanson said.

To pay for the fire station and fire engine replacements, city and fire officials have determined they likely will need to ask voters to approve a capital bond for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

Loomis, who has worked on several fire department-related issues in Clark County over the past few years, has advised Swanson and Washougal City Manager David Scott that city officials in both Camas and Washougal — who are considering asking voters to approve forming a regional fire authority — run the capital facilities bond in both cities at the same time and also ask voters to approve EMS levy renewals at the same time to reinforce that CWFD provides fire and EMS services to residents in both cities, across one service district.

“The terms of the agreement with Liz Loomis are not dependent on whether the bond is passed or not,” Swanson added. “This agreement is specific to professional services provided to the (fire) department for messaging related to the bond and the EMS levies.”

Under the terms of the fire department’s nearly decade-old interlocal agreement (ILA), professional services contracts like the one proposed with Liz Loomis Public Affairs must be approved by the fire department’s funding body, the city of Camas, with the city of Washougal agreeing, per the terms of the ILA, to reimburse Camas for 40% of the costs.

Washougal ‘prepared to move forward’

After City Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen said she had qualms with a contract that listed the city of Camas as “the client,” Swanson and City Councilman John Nohr — who served as a Portland Fire & Rescue firefighter for 20 years and is the current fire chief for Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, which serves the cities of La Center, Ridgefield and Woodland in Clark and Cowlitz counties — explained to Lewallen this is how professional services contract for the CWFD are written, per the terms of the interlocal agreement that formed the joint fire department in 2013.

“I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but this says the agreement is … between (Liz Loomis Public Affairs) and the city of Camas,” Lewallen said. “Nowhere in this contract do I read ‘fire department.’ … When we’re dealing with contracts for services we have to be very, very clear about who is the client. (This agreement) says ‘city of Camas’ over and over and over again. There is no mention of the fire department. No mention of Washougal … Who is the client? Who’s paying? How do we parse this out? …. I’m not comfortable with this contract, as is, at all.”

Swanson pointed out that the contract does, in fact, state: “(the client, which is the city of Camas per the terms of the CWFDs interlocal agreement) jointly operates a fire department with the city of Washougal, known as the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, through an interlocal agreement, as amended, which encompasses as service area the incorporated limits of the city of Camas and city of Washougal … and the client and city of Washougal both desire and agree to retain the consultant’s services consistent with the terms and purpose of the interlocal agreement associated with available revenue and funding resources for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and further which shall be governed, as between Camas and Washougal, through the cost allocation provisions therein.”

Swanson added that the Liz Loomis contract has the same language — with the city of Camas as the client — as other fire department-related professional services’ agreements Camas officials have OK’d in the past.

“This is how they’re written,” Nohr said of the contract for fire department professional services. “The city of Washougal would not have a stand-alone contract with this person (Loomis) because it’s routed through the fire department … and because of the way the ILA is written, everything comes through the city of Camas for (the fire department’s expenses).”

Washougal’s city manager, David Scott, was on hand during the Camas Council’s Jan. 3 workshop to provide some context about Washougal officials’ position on the agreement to pay Liz Loomis Public Affairs $11,666 a month beginning this month and running throughout the course of the year, with expenses to not exceed $140,000.

“We know voted debt will be necessary to replace the department’s fire stations and apparatus … and we adopted same fire impact fees as (the city of Camas),” Scott told Camas officials on Jan. 3. “It is our understanding that we’re looking for some expert assistance in clarifying messaging … and we are prepared to move forward.”

If city officials were only discussing EMS levy renewals, Scott said, they would likely not need to discuss hiring a consultant to help with public affairs and messaging, but Washougal officials support extra help when it comes to passing a capital facilities and apparatus bond.

“We haven’t passed something like this in Washougal for 20 years, since we passed a bond for the police station. We’re really looking for assistance,” Scott said, adding that Washougal officials are “fully prepared to work together” with Camas to fund the replacement of the two fire stations and the four fire engines, “and get (the) EMS levies passed so we can continue to have a solid partnership.”

“Our commitment to the partnership remains, and we look forward to the (regional fire authority) conversations moving forward on a parallel track,” Scott said, adding that he hoped Camas officials would authorize the contract.

“We’re prepared, like we were with all other (CWFD) professional services, to pay our share,” Scott said, adding that the city of Washougal has not carved out its own agreements for professional services related to the joint fire department over the past nine years — something Lewallen had suggested should happen with the Loomis contract — as “historically, these agreements … run through Camas. That is how the ILA is set up.”

‘We have run out of room to run’

Camas Councilwoman Bonnie Carter encouraged her peers on the Council to accept the agreement.

“We have been talking about fire, well, some of us have been talking about this for many, many years, and we are recognizing that we are hitting kind of a wall here,” Carter said. “We have run out of room to run. … I don’t want one of our (fire) stations to close because we can’t staff it. I don’t want to extend our call time to somebody having a heart attack because our nearest station is in Vancouver.”

“And I appreciate everybody’s concerns and questions, but we’ve had this information. The bond amount is projected to be 22 cents. It says it right there in Attachment A. We have a levy we already pay. We already have one in place, so this is not a new one. It’s one in place,” Carter said. “For me, I’ve been around too long. I see what is happening, and I have read the documents. Some of the documents are long … and (Loomis) could really help with that public consumption because it would be concise. She could help us pick out the high points so people would digest (the information) and not gloss over it after seeing so many numbers and so many words.”

Councilman Don Chaney asked why Camas officials couldn’t have a few more weeks to better digest the information regarding the contract with Loomis’ firm.

“How much harm are we going to do waiting for a meeting or two?” he asked.

Swanson said time was of the essence, considering the fact that city leaders wanted to put the bond and the EMS levies to voters later this year.

“(Loomis) would have liked to have started on this months ago, preferably a year in advance of putting something on the ballot to set yourselves up for the maximum probability of success,” Swanson said. “Waiting another month is a loss of critical time to get out to the community.”

Swanson, who was leading his last Camas City Council meeting as the city’s interim city administrator on Jan. 3, added that city officials in Camas and Washougal will still face the same critical infrastructure needs for their joint fire department regardless of whether voters eventually approve a regional fire authority or if the cities decide to stick with an interlocal agreement for the CWFD.

“You still have these assets you need to fund,” Swanson said. “And, yes, we should have been on this years ago. We’re going fast because we’re trying to stop a bleed. We are where we are, and we have to kind of meet ourselves where we are. We have to do the best we can so that we don’t have apparatus that fail when we need them to perform. So that we don’t have (fire) stations that fail to be useful when we need them to be useful. That is the push. … This is where we’ve landed. We worked hard to get a capital facilities plan done and the fire impact fees adopted so that, legally, we could go out for a bond for these facilities and use public dollars to improve them.”

After Camas officials, including Lewallen, Chaney and Councilman Tim Hein, asked Swanson to provide more information, the interim city administrator said he would if council members could tell him exactly what information they were looking for.

“I need you to help me understand what you need to get to ‘yes’ on this,” Swanson told Chaney, Hein and Lewallen.

“In the interest of time, would it be prudent to send an email?” Lewallen asked Swanson. “Three of us have concerns. Perhaps it is most expedient to email you at a later date saying, ‘This is the information we need to make our decision.’?”

“If we’re going to delay this, I need some feedback, some questions (to answer),” Swanson said.

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan suggested the council take the issue up again at the Council’s Jan. 17 workshop and/or meeting.