Fire districts meet to talk challenges, future cooperation


Though legally distinct, the challenges faced by Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue (CCFR) and Clark County Fire District 3 (FD3) often follow similar threads.

The districts met to discuss a number of those issues Oct. 4, ranging from funding to response. Chiefs and top personnel were present alongside each district’s board of commissioners.

“I think we’re all dealing with a lot of regional issues,” Rick Steele, president of FD3’s board of commissioners said during a meeting of the two districts at CCFR’s Dollar’s Corner station Oct. 4.

Funding issues

Both districts had concerns with potentially losing out on property tax revenue, the main way fire protection is funded outside of municipalities with their own departments.

For CCFR, it’s the potential for a “tax-increment financing” (TIF) area in part of Ridgefield within district boundaries.

If approved, the TIF area will use property tax growth from development in its boundaries to fund infrastructure projects intended to support that growth. It diverts increased property tax collections from taxing districts such as the city, county and fire district to pay for a list of projects established at the formation of the TIF area.

CCFR has been working on mitigating the potential impacts, district Chief John Nohr said. Officials spoke with state representatives to hopefully get something in state law addressing that issue.

CCFR Commissioner Larry Bartel mentioned the district covers seven different taxing governments between counties, cities and ports that can enact their own TIF areas. Though information from the City of Ridgefield showed the district could be out about $17.4 million over the 25-year span of the area proposed in Ridgefield, the district’s own calculations indicate it would be more.

“This will probably be the No. 1 issue for the state fire commissioners this year, and probably the state fire chiefs,” Bartel said.

For FD3, the district revenues could be reduced by tax exemptions for housing. Earlier in the week the Battle Ground City Council turned down a proposal for a 200-unit apartment complex using a new property tax exemption that the district estimated could lead to $700,000 in foregone property taxes for the district over eight years.

Though the council voted against the exemption, FD3 Chief Scott Sorenson didn’t believe it was the last the district would see of the tax break appearing before the council.

“It will be back, I’m sure,” Sorenson said.

He said state legislators weren’t sure themselves about how the exemption law would affect independent taxing districts.

Looking at revenue sources, Nohr said the county districts have made progress in efforts to make unincorporated areas of the county pay fire impact fees. The one-time fees are leveled on new construction and go toward fire departments. Similar fees are designated for school and parks districts where they are enacted.

Nohr mentioned the Clark County Planning Commission passed a recommendation late last month to approve the fire impact fees. That recommendation will go before the Clark County Council for final approval or denial.

“It’s not a huge sum of money, but it helps, especially if you get some of that front-loaded funding because you are going to see the responses in those areas,” Nohr said.

Sorenson brought up his district’s failed levy “lid lift” vote in August. If approved, the lid lift would have increased the district’s property tax, with FD3’s intention to increase staffing to three-person crews and remodel a station in the district’s eastern reaches to be able to house full-time staff.

The FD3 chief noted his district was the only one with a ballot measure in the election. Nohr said with an expiring measure allowing for more yearly collection, CCFR may entertain going out for its own lid lift next year.

Regional cooperation

Officials from both districts agreed that many of their challenges weren’t unique to their respective borders.

“Personally, what I’m looking for is how do we attack these things, not as single departments, but together,” Steele said.

Steele noted how, when approaching the county on the issue of impact fees as a single district, FD3 was unable to make much headway. That began to change when the districts began coordinating with one another.

As an example of greater inter-district cooperation, Nohr mentioned his district’s joint station with Clark County Fire District 6 at the Clark County Fairgrounds. When that station became fully staffed Sept. 1, both districts “dropped the borders” with each other at the station, he said, meaning whichever district is staffing the building when the unit is closest to an incident, it will respond, regardless of which district the incident is in.

With the periodic update of the county and cities’ comprehensive growth management plans upcoming, Nohr anticipated Battle Ground’s boundaries were likely to grow west, bringing in land closer to CCFR’s Dollar’s Corner station. Battle Ground is in FD3, which could lead to a situation where the CCFR station is the closest to a call in the neighboring district’s territory.

Looking at a map, Nohr said CCFR and FD3 were the two most-similar departments in the county.

“Because of the way that we’ve run for years, it ends up being probably just the couple of easiest departments to integrate our operations to work closely together,” Nohr said.

Sorenson noted both districts share a sizable border with each other.

“The way the [boundary] line is, it’s just a zig and a zag all over,” Sorenson said.

Both districts contribute mutual aid for each other when needed. Bartel pointed out it served both districts goal: to provide aid when needed.

“When someone’s having a heart attack, they just want someone there. They don’t care what the patch on your shoulder is,” Bartel said. “We shouldn’t either.”

At points during the conversation, the district officials mentioned consolidation, which could come in the form of the annexation of one district by another, or a merger of both districts. A veteran of seven mergers and annexations during his career, Bartel said such measures weren’t necessarily the route to take.

Both Bartel and Nohr said interlocal agreements could also allow for flexibility in operations without going to a full-blown merger or annexation.

Inter-district cooperation could also support their efforts in securing a better ambulance service contract. Both districts, along with FD6, have their own contract together, which itself is under a larger contract between the Vancouver Fire Department and American Medical Response, the service provider.

That contract is coming up for a renewal next year, during which time the fire districts outside of Vancouver may be able to push for a better deal in response times, CCFR officials said.

Steele mentioned more cooperation could lead to greater success in receiving grant opportunities or better deals with vendors.

“You have better buying power when you have a bigger organization or organizations,” Steele said.

By the end of the meeting, both districts planned to keep discussing future collaboration. Nohr recommended having FD6 in on the next meeting, given its involvement with the ambulance services contract. No official date for that next meeting has been set.