Fire/EMS hot topic at Camas City Council meeting

Council members debate additional fire/EMS positions, budget, and new taxes

At this week’s Camas City Council workshop and regular meeting, council members spent more than three and a half hours addressing an agenda of items, three of which consumed the majority of the time spent at both meetings. Those items included a one-year extension of an interlocal agreement amendment with Washougal regarding funding Fire and EMS service, the hiring of additional Fire/EMS personnel, and the 2021 proposed budget. 

The interlocal agreement with Washougal regarding the Fire/EMS department was the most challenging, and set the tone for the majority of the evening. The discussion centered around the hiring of five positions for the fire department in 2019. Washougal officials were  unwilling to fund their share of all five positions. Instead, they agreed to fund their share of two positions. Camas picked up the balance of the funding. The cost of that was not provided.

The staff presented the agreement in a way indicating that if the agreement were not extended, Camas would lose $80,000 in revenue. This indicated Washougal would not pay their current share and simply walk away from the obligation. A council member questioned this assumption.

Station 42 in Grass Valley of Camas is normally only manned by two personnel. The Camas-Washougal Fire Department is seeking funding and authorization to hire four more personnel, in addition to five that were hired in 2019. Photo by John Ley
Station 42 in Grass Valley of Camas is normally only manned by two personnel. The Camas-Washougal Fire Department is seeking funding and authorization to hire four more personnel, in addition to five that were hired in 2019. Photo by John Ley

Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell sought to clarify. “I just point out that this is not including the four additional positions that we’ll be discussing at the regular meeting,” he said, indicating that there would be nine new Fire/EMS positions total being added since 2019 if the council decides to move forward with the pending addition of four positions.

Tied to the discussion was an alleged promise to add more positions to the Fire/EMS staffing. Several members of the department’s union made public comments in support of the additional positions, desiring the elimination of cross staffing at Station 42.

Several council members voiced concern about the inability of Washougal to pay their full share of the five positions added in 2019. “I have not liked the way that this has worked for us over the last few years,” said Council Member Steve Hogan, who is one of three Camas members of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC) working with members of the Washougal city council. “It doesn’t seem that we’re on the same page as two entities.”

“I think if anything, it’s going to get worse unless we do something,” Hogan said. “If we do sign off on this, we give them the notification under (section) 19.2 of the agreement that we’re planning on terminating if it’s going to stay in this format.”  

Hogan mentioned the fact that the Port of Camas-Washougal does not contribute funding for Fire/EMS protection. Hogan added that the port is expanding rapidly, which will add to service needs. Fire Chief Nick Swinhart explained that state law prohibits the port from contributing..

Councilor Don Chaney weighed in, sharing that “none of the property on the port is assessed by the assessor’s office. Therefore, it doesn’t show up in the formula” for paying for Fire/EMS. Swinhart affirmed “due to how state law addresses port authorities, it does not reflect in the cost share formula.”

Chaney asked for confirmation. “If we don’t sign that agreement, it’s my understanding that we can’t collect that $80,000 for their share of the two employees that they have agreed to last year.” Camas City Administrator Jamal Fox nodded his agreement. 

A council member asked why Washougal wouldn’t pay. “Wouldn’t they be in default” on the agreement?

Greg Anderson pointed out the interlocal agreement runs until it’s terminated or superseded by another arrangement.

The cost of the four additional positions (not counting the five already hired) was estimated to be $500,000 annually. Council member Shannon Roberts said: “I’m worried; is this sustainable in the future?”

Chief Swinhart explained the issue. “When we refer to cross staffing at Station 42, which is our station in Grass Valley, that means that we only have enough personnel there on most days to staff, either ambulance or a fire engine, not both. So when we say cross staffing, that means that depending on the call that comes in the 9-1-1 call determines whether they jump on an ambulance or an engine, they can’t do both. So that’s what we’re trying to eliminate with hiring more personnel.”

Swinhart shared that internally, they knew it was going to take a total of eight or nine more people to fully eliminate the cross staffing problems. 

The conversation quickly got back to the problems with Washougal’s inability to fully fund their present obligation of the five staff positions filled in 2019. Chaney indicated that until that problem got solved, he was likely against filling additional positions. 

Council Member Ellen Burton asked if the council could seek a less than perfect solution, for example, hire one or two more people now, and spread hiring the rest to the future, when things presumably were resolved with Washougal.

There were several options staff offered on how to pay for the additional positions. One included a utility tax. Camas presently is one of the few cities that does not tax utilities. Anderson weighed in saying he could not support creating a utility tax. He suggested a blend of other alternatives. 

Others weighed in. Hogan said “over my dead body” to a utility tax. He suggested a “termination clause” be put in effect if Washougal didn’t step up. Roberts said she’s not in favor of any tax increases.

Washougal City Administrator Dave Scott was listening to the debate and was invited to weigh in. Scott shared that the Washougal City Council is committed to the partnership. However they already have a utility tax. 

They would have to go to the voters for any kind of a tax increase and due to the pandemic, they are very reluctant to go to the voters to raise taxes. “They (the council) wanted to wait until next year at the soonest, to ask that bigger question out of concern for losing our levy lid lift completely,” he said.

Mayor McDonnell tried to forge a consensus around a partial funding of two positions now and two later. But there was no agreement on how to raise the funds, nor whether or not they would proceed until the funding problems with Washougal were resolved.

Burton moved to extend the one-year agreement amendment extension, whereby Washougal paid their share of two positions. It was seconded by Chaney. The motion passed unanimously.

In the end, the council’s discussion and decision left open how the current obligation to pay for the five Fire/EMS positions will be funded by the city of Camas. Washougal will be allowed to pay their share of two positions next year.

This will clearly be a topic of interest at both Camas and Washougal council meetings in the near future.