Camas plans to hire four more fire/EMS positions in spite of financial difficulties
For the past few years, there has been “friction” between city officials in Camas and Washougal regarding the funding of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD). In 2019, Washougal was unable to cover their full share of fire department costs.
According to Bryan Rachal, director of communications for the city of Camas, the difference was funded from the unanticipated shared revenue of GEMT (Ground Emergency Medical Transport) funding received from the state of Washington for both 2019 and 2020.
The agreement between the two cities gives Camas effective operational control over the CWFD, including the ability to hire additional staff. Costs are split along a previously negotiated formula that allocates 60.3 percent to Camas and 39.7 percent to Washougal.
As Camas worked through budget deliberations in the fall of 2020, the financial issues resurfaced. Washougal informed Camas they would not be able to meet their financial obligations for the CWFD in 2021. The mayor directed City Administrator Jamal Fox to enter into discussions with Washougal City Manager Dave Scott to try and resolve the issues.
There is also a Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC) serving as the advisory committee overseeing the merged fire departments. Rachal reports the purpose and scope is described in the interlocal agreement (ILA) that governs the merger. The committee is composed of three elected officials from each city.
“It is important to note that the JPAC is only an advisory committee,” he said. “They do not have legislative powers and subsequently there are no motions or votes held.”
Yet in approving the Camas budget, the mayor and members of the Camas City Council agreed to fund the hiring of four new firefighters for the CWFD; two in 2021 and two in 2022. That would increase costs for the CWFD by $105,000 per fire position or $420,000 annually once fully implemented.
The last time new positions were added was in 2019. Camas added four new front-line FTEs (full time equivalents) and an additional deputy fire marshal. For the 2019 Budget package for those positions, it was $459,515 according to Rachal.
Added together, taxpayers appear to have an additional $880,000 in annual costs to bear due to the addition of the eight new fire/EMS positions. The Washougal share would be about $352,000 annually, and Camas about $528,000.
Scott said there were three positions added in 2019, two firefighters and one deputy fire marshal, and this is when the challenges began.
Last Monday, Camas council members approved hiring Merina+CO as an outside consultant to conduct a Joint Fire and EMS Service Review. Their services are expected to last until Feb.1, 2022. The cost of those services is not expected to exceed $94,770, and would be covered by the 60/40 split.
According to the council agenda, the data shows that both cities are having difficulty funding the department with the current cost-share agreement and that the department needs assistance in reviewing the partnership by an outside neutral vendor.
Citizens might wonder if both cities were having difficulty funding the CWFD at current staffing levels, why would the council add to the cost burden and strained finances, by adding four new positions? If the CWFD merger were to end, response times would increase according to the staff report. However no specific details were provided.
Scott was asked how much more Washougal would have had to pay in 2019 and 2020, under the current agreement.
“Washougal is not obligated contractually to pay for those new positions under the original ILA,” he said. “However, Camas and Washougal agreed to an addendum in both 2019 and 2020, wherein Washougal agreed to fund its share of the two new firefighter positions temporarily (not beyond 2020) while we worked together on a program evaluation to determine our best path forward in the partnership, and to allow Washougal the opportunity to determine a sustainable funding source to support these new expenses.”
It appears the “program evaluation” is only beginning now, almost half way through 2021.
The addenda provided that Camas would cover the costs of the additional deputy fire marshal, according to Scott. The Washougal share of the two additional firefighter positions in 2019 was estimated at $64,000 and about $80,000 in 2020 according to Scott.
Chief Nick Swinhart explains staffing at the three fire stations, two in Camas and one in Washougal. Video John Ley
For overall program cost increases, there are processes and procedures prescribed in the ILA for when the budget increases above a certain percentage. If certain thresholds are exceeded, Washougal can give notice of their intent to end the merger, provided certain time limit notifications are followed, according to Rachal.
Scott was asked if Washougal has an equal say in the hiring or creation of new positions on the CWFD? If so, did Washougal agree to the hiring of the four new fire/EMS positions? If not, can Camas control the hiring and Washougal must pay their portion, even though they did not agree to the new positions?
“Washougal has an equal say in what program costs Washougal will pay in the context of staffing,” he said. “This is governed by our ILA, which provides for the staffing profile. As the partner providing the services, Camas certainly has the unilateral ability to budget for and staff whatever level of program staffing in this program they decide is appropriate. However, whether or not Washougal will pay approximately 40 percent of any increased costs due to an increased staffing profile requires mutual agreement.”
Scott shared that Washougal is committed to providing quality fire/EMS services to its citizens and businesses, and is committed to engaging in good faith with Camas in this important and valued partnership.
Members of the Washougal City Council have acknowledged in principle that there are increasing program demands, including staffing levels. “The issue facing Washougal is the inability to pay the increased program costs (beyond the general inflationary pressures) without identifying a sustainable, long-term source of dedicated funding,” Scott said.
“For Washougal, this will very likely involve asking our voters,” he said. “The pending partnership review will be instrumental in assisting the partners in determining the best path forward for the partnership from among the various options available. Based on those results, Washougal can then determine the best approach to identifying a sustainable, long-term source of funding for the needed program enhancements.”
According to the Camas council agenda, the CWFD has been in a “functional consolidation” that brought together CFD and WFD into one organization in 2014. The financial cost-sharing agreement that comprises the merger ILA has led to difficulties in the ability of both cities to fund the growing needs of the fire department.
During Camas council deliberations on Nov. 16, a review was done of an outside consultant series of recommendations from 2019. Among them were numerous examples of the firefighter union contract causing excess costs. These included contractual language on vacations causing significant overtime pay. Furthermore, the contract limits the use of volunteer firefighters. Apparently there has been no willingness by the union to modify these provisions, in order to save the two cities money.
During those November workshop deliberations, Camas Council Member Don Chaney expressed frustration that not enough time was allowed for council members to ask probing questions and dig deeper into the issues. Council Member Shannon Roberts asked that modifications to the recently opened labor agreement be pursued to affect cost savings changes to the union contract.
The city budget was adopted at the Dec. 7 council meeting. There were no comments or discussions among any of the council members during either the workshop or the regular meeting, about whether or not to include the additional four fire/EMS positions in the budget. Ultimately, the budget was passed by the council, with councilor members Steve Hogan and Roberts voting no.
Updating or changing the cost-share formula was identified in the organizational scan conducted by the Novak Group. At the Feb. 16 workshop, council members gave direction to begin a process to solicit assistance from a consulting group to conduct a facilitated review of the merger. The results of that review appear to be nearly one year away.
It was noted in the May 17 workshop agenda that there has been no community outreach on this topic. They promised the council and the public will be involved and afforded the opportunity for discussion on any proposed changes to the merger ILA.