Washougal bumps up fire funding in 2024 budget

Council to discuss budget, 16% fire increase Nov. 13

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A fire engine sits outside the Camas-Washougal Fire Department's Fire Station 43 in Washougal Oct. 11, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Five years after Camas leaders first expressed a desire to add more firefighters to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD), Washougal officials say they are still searching for a way to fully fund their share of the new positions.

They are cautiously optimistic that the search is nearing an end.

The city of Washougal’s proposed 2024 budget includes $5.2 million for fire services, a 16% increase from 2023.

“A contract extension agreement is currently pending, and there’s some potential use of reserves,” finance director Daniel Layer said during a Council workshop held Monday, Oct. 23.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told The Post-Record the City has been working with Camas “to determine a sustainable path for the future.”

“(We have looked at) cost-sharing for the added positions for 2023 and beyond, and the possibility of forming a regional fire authority,” Scott said. “Once we reach an agreement, it will be retroactive for 2023. The $5.2 million amount in Washougal’s proposed 2024 budget is a placeholder amount based upon recent information from Camas pending the specifics of a new agreement.”

Washougal’s 2024 budget includes investments in the City’s new strategic initiatives manager and community engagement program coordinator positions; mandated improvements to the City’s wastewater treatment plant; design and permitting for the City’s new 32nd Street underpass project; design, and permitting, and construction of the City’s Town Center civic campus project; and mandated updates to the City’s comprehensive land use plan and related capital facilities plans.

“All of that (will be paid for from) funds other than the general fund,” said Scott, adding that the City will use loans, grants, state appropriations, impact fees and other dedicated revenue sources “that cannot be used for anything else” to pay for the city’s capital projects.

“The two new positions (are) both funded from the Strategic Plan Implementation fund,” Scott said. “One position is designed to work on program development in community engagement and recreation programs, and is anticipated to be eventually largely supported by program revenue once the program development work is implemented over the next year or so. The other position represents an investment in activities designed to boost economic development and capital and program project funding, with the goal, in part, of promoting enhanced general fund operating revenues to support the position and ongoing and increased services across all general fund programs, including fire.”

The need to fund more firefighters — and find the means to bring new firefighters on board — has been a point of contention between city officials in Camas and Washougal since 2018.

Under the 10-year interlocal agreement that merged the two cities’ fire departments in 2013 — and that is set to expire at the end of this year — Camas agreed to be the joint fire department’s main funding agency and pay roughly 60% of the department’s costs, leaving Washougal responsible for about 40% of the expenses.

Officials in both cities began to question the merger in 2018, after the Camas City Council agreed to add four new firefighter positions. Though most Washougal councilors agreed the fire department was short-staffed and the positions were needed, Washougal officials said their city could not afford to pay for its share of the new hires.

The issue came up again in 2020, after Camas leaders again said they were considering adding four more firefighters as part of the city’s 2021-22 budget process. Scott told The Post-Record in 2020 that Washougal city councilors “generally acknowledged the need for enhanced staffing” at CWFD but was having trouble finding revenue to cover Washougal’s share of the new hires.

In 2021, the cities hired Merina + CO to analyze the current interlocal agreement and present possible alternatives.

“For Washougal, it’s pretty telling,” Rob Moody, a Merina + CO consultant, told officials in 2021. “Based on what we believe the city of Washougal could raise in property taxes given the current rates … 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.”

The Camas and Washougal councils added amendments to the interlocal agreement in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 to address adding positions beyond the base staffing level of 56 full-time equivalent positions.

“The amendments provided that Washougal would pay its share for some, but not all of the added positions,” Scott said. “For 2019 and 2020, the amendments provided that Washougal would pay for its share (for) two of the five (new) positions. In 2021 and 2022, the amendments provided that Washougal would pay for its share of those two of five added positions, plus our share of four more added positions. Each of the amendments provided for Washougal’s partial cost-sharing of the added positions for one year only, with language indicating that Washougal is not committed to pay for the additional positions beyond that year.”

Merina consultants told officials from both cities in 2022, that they should consider forming a regional fire authority (RFA) instead of working to correct the many “gaps” in the current agreement and called the interlocal agreement in effect now “unsustainable.”

Officials from Camas and Washougal have discussed the possible formation of an RFA, which would require voter approval, during ongoing meetings of the CWFD’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC).

Several Washougal council members, including Mayor David Stuebe and Molly Coston, have publicly voiced their preference for the RFA over the current interlocal agreement.

“(This is) a huge issue,” said Coston, a JPAC member. “We’ve been working on it for a couple of years, and it is a huge challenge for us, and Camas as well, because costs escalate every year, much more than our revenue escalates. We’re going to have to find some strategies to mitigate that and find ways to continue that relationship.”

Washougal City Council members will discuss the proposed 2024 budget, including the fire department funds, during their meeting on Monday, Nov. 13.

Camas officials question proposal

Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn told Camas officials this week that he had received Washougal’s comments regarding the extension of the CWFD’s interlocal agreement, which expires Dec. 31.

“They are, at this point, suggesting an alternative formula (different from) the original agreement,” Quinn said during the Camas City Council’s workshop on Monday, Nov. 6. “We have a ways to go in evaluating this new proposal.”

Camas Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, a JPAC member, said officials from both cities have had “very contentious conversations” during recent JPAC meetings.

At least one Camas City Council member — Councilman Tim Hein — expressed frustration this week about the ongoing fire department funding-formula negotiations.

“I am disappointed at what I see from our colleagues in Washougal,” Hein said Monday. “It’s disappointing to see a lack of recognition … of monies owed (to Camas). There is a lot of talk about an RFA and extending (the interlocal agreement) into the future, but not a lot of talk on their side about what is owed to the city of Camas and the citizens of Camas now.”

“I don’t understand why we would continue to work on an RFA and extending an agreement (with Washougal) when the tenets of that agreement are not being met,” Hein added. “We have until Dec. 31, and there could be a motion before then regarding not extending that relationship. I want to share that in the spirit of (having) no surprises.”

Camas Councilman Don Chaney, also a JPAC member, added that the Washougal proposal was “complex” and said Camas JPAC members planned to meet Tuesday, Nov. 7, to discuss the details of the proposal’s funding formula suggestions.

“We got Washougal’s proposal Friday,” Chaney said. “It’s so complex I don’t think I’d do it justice (discussing the details), so we’re going to have a Camas JPAC meeting tomorrow morning … then get back to Washougal JPAC (members) as soon as we can.”

Washougal moving forward on fire station replacement

The city of Washougal is also moving forward toward replacing its fire station, located at 1400 “A” St. near downtown Washougal.

“We only have concepts to help us make that decision, so now we need to secure full design,” Scott told the Washougal City Council during the Council’s Oct. 23 workshop. “It’s a qualifications-based selection, so we have to do an RFQ (request for qualifications). We’re working with the fire department to get the RFQ out, and then we’ll get responses to that. We pick the most qualified person and then we negotiate with that person on a price. If we can’t reach an agreement, we go to the next qualified person. We don’t know yet what that price will be, but probably in the first quarter next year, we’ll come back (with) that pricing. Probably, fire impact fees will be funding that. It’s a good use of those funds.”

According to a report by Mackenzie, the Portland-based consultant group hired by Camas in early 2021 to conduct a capital facilities plan for the CWFD, the fire department will need to replace two fire stations, including the Washougal station and the CWFD headquarters in downtown Camas within the next five years, and build a third within the next 10 years to in order to meet the needs of current and future Camas-Washougal residents.

The consultants projected the total cost of replacing the two existing CWFD fire stations and building a third station, excluding any necessary land purchases, would be between $33 million and $36.5 million.

Camas officials have been in conversations about floating a capital facilities bond to fund the renovation or replacement of the fire department’s headquarters next to Camas City Hall, which, according to the 2021 Mackenzie report, would not withstand a major earthquake.

Post-Record Managing Editor Kelly Moyer contributed to this article.