Voters in Woodland and throughout Clark County Fire & Rescue’s jurisdiction will have the chance to approve formal annexation of the city into the district with a ballot measure set for a vote in the August primary.
The ballot measure would put all of Woodland city limits under the jurisdiction of Clark County Fire & Rescue (CCF&R), with which the city currently contracts for fire protection service.
Woodland’s relationship with CCF&R started formally in 2013 when what was once the city’s own department was absorbed into the district and a six-year contract was signed. Later in 2017 a 25-year contract was signed, around the time the city was exploring options for fire protection service that would eventually lead to agreement on annexation.
In March both Woodland City Council and the CCF&R commissioners approved putting annexation on the August ballot. As a condition of approval, city council also voted to reduce the city’s levy rate by $1.48 per $1,000 of assessed value, roughly the same as what the city pays as part of the long-term contract, and what Woodland residents will pay as part of the fire district should voters approve the ballot measure, effectively nullifying any effective tax increases on those in the city.
CCF&R Chief John Nohr said the district oversees about 125 square miles both in Northwest Clark County and the portion of Cowlitz County the majority of Woodland is in. Should Woodland be annexed, those who live within current district boundaries won’t see an effect on their property taxes, Nohr said, as the rate had already been approved by those voters prior.
Nohr said there also wouldn’t be a change in service provided by CCF&R to those in the district, given the department already provides fire service to the area in question via contract.
For Woodland Nohr said formal annexation helped for planning purposes as the rate of the contract was independent of fluctuations in changes of assessed value that the district levy is subject to as a function of state law on property taxes. Though the contract was set to mirror what the rate was, it could potentially be more as assessed values increased.
“We float up and down (with regard to levy rate) whereas the contract for the city locks them into that rate,” Nohr said.
Woodland City Administrator Peter Boyce added that formal annexation meant Woodland residents could run for district commissioner, allowing for city representation in making decisions.
There would be some official changes in ownership of equipment the district uses which is currently owned by the city. CCF&R Battalion Chief Mike Jackson said there were two engines, a ladder truck and three light vehicles including a brushfire unit that would be included in a property transfer.
Jackson said that although there may be concern over a transfer of assets from the city to the district, “it’s taxpayer assets” overall, he said, with the city becoming a part of the entity that ends up owning the equipment and apparatus with an approved annexation.
“You could argue it would be owned by the same people,” Jackson remarked, adding that Woodlanders could theoretically be purchasing the same equipment twice should it be sold to the district rather than transferred.
Nohr noted that in some instances district-owned equipment would be based at the Woodland station, and through the contract Woodland-owned equipment could be used district-wide.
The current Woodland station on East Scott Avenue is on a larger piece of property owned by the city that includes the Woodland Police Department Nohr said that what an ownership or lease agreement for the station itself would look like was still in the works.
The greatest change should voters approve annexation may be cosmetic. Nohr noted that due to state law a name change might be in order given naming conventions the state has, meaning what is now Clark County Fire & Rescue could become “Clark-Cowlitz Fire Protection District 15” officially under state law.
Nohr was in favor of the name change, however, noting that the district has operated in predominantly-Cowlitz County Woodland for years.
With restrictions on gatherings and social distancing practices in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Nohr said it has been an “incredible challenge to make contact with the public” regarding annexation. He said he had attended virtual city council meetings in Woodland as well as La Center and Ridgefield, the latter two already annexed into CCF&R.
The district has also posted frequently asked questions on the district website, anf fire crews have also been briefed on FAQs, though Nohr noted their interactions have been limited to emergency situations.
The last few weeks before the vote deadline will see CCF&R host a number of virtual presentations with question and answer sessions Tuesday evenings beginning July 14.
What Nohr has heard has been largely positive, he said, “but without having the ability to go out and stand on a street corner, shake hands with residents and say ‘hey, what do you think about this,’ it’s really difficult to get that feedback.”
Nohr said that annexations and mergers have been a trend among fire districts both regionally and across the country, saying one of the benefits was removal of redundancies in administration and equipment in order to keep low insurance rates.
“By pooling together, all these communities as well as the unincorporated area in between get a great level of service at a much cheaper rate than if they tried to do it themselves,” Nohr remarked.