Chief lays out Western Washington County Fire Authority concept
It's been discussed for some time now, but the topic has perhaps never felt more real than it did with dozens of people crowding into the Forest Grove Community Auditorium to hear Chief Michael Kinkade talk about it: the prospect of forming a "fire authority," which could be a first step toward replacing individual municipal fire departments and rural fire protection districts with a regional fire district.
Kinkade, who was the featured speaker at Forest Grove's annual town meeting Saturday, Jan. 27, serves as chief of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, the Cornelius Fire Department, and the Gaston Fire District. The former two are technically four, Kinkade noted: a city and rural fire agency for both, which operate with the same staff and equipment and out of the same stations.
Kinkade took over as Cornelius' fire chief in 2010 and was named Gaston's fire chief in 2015. Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston's fire agencies all work closely together — as one might expect for organizations that share a top administrator — and the chief would like to streamline and solidify that arrangement by changing the governance structure for fire and rescue services in the area.
Authority would mean unitary governing board
A Western Washington County Fire Authority, Kinkade said, would essentially replace the five different entities that supervise him — the city managers of Forest Grove and Cornelius, and the fire district boards for rural Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston — with one board of directors. Cities included under the fire authority would retain some local control, he added, by appointing representatives to that board.
"This is the most complex fire governance model in the state of Oregon," Kinkade said of the current system. "It's not a bad thing — it's working — but I know of no other model like this that exists."
In response to a question from an audience member about who would replace him if he were to retire, Kinkade responded, "Good question."
"If I was presented this when I arrived as the new fire chief in 2008, I would have failed miserably," Kinkade said. "Using the analogy of the frog in the boiling water and slowly increasing the heat, I'm the frog. Ribbit. And so that's why we're here. We recognize the problem. The council recognizes, the city manager's recognized the problem, and we have some options here, and I'm trying to get your input on that."
Creating a fire authority would allow for "operational cost-savings," according to Kinkade, but it would not raise taxes. Rather, taxes collected across the jurisdictions it covers would be pooled to fund administrative positions like the fire chief and board.
The current concept would merge Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston's fire agencies under the fire authority, although Kinkade said it is possible that it could expand if neighboring fire districts, such as the Banks Fire District, opt in. The agencies have been talking about consolidation for several years.
'Experiment' could be undone — or taken to next level
Importantly, the authority would not be a full merger of the agencies, Kinkade said. Each would retain their own assets.
Forest Grove City Councilor Elena Uhing cautioned that a fire authority is not a "panacea" that would solve all of the challenges with fire services in western Washington County.
"This is an experiment for us, because we need to look for sustainability," Uhing said. "Comments that I have received from other communities that have gone through this, citizens feel a lack of control. The smaller outer areas feel that perhaps they're not recognized as quickly. … I don't want you to feel that we're just saying, 'Oh, this is the answer to everything.' This is an opportunity for us to try something that might help us in the future."
Kinkade said that if policy-makers ultimately decide after trying out the "experimental" fire authority system that they want to revert back to something more like the current system, with separate fire agencies that have intergovernmental agreements and partner relationships with one another, they will be able to do so.
A vote of the people would be required to form a fire district, Kinkade said.
Another option could be to merge the fire authority into Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, which already covers most of Washington County and parts of Yamhill County, along with pieces of Clackamas and Multnomah counties. That would also require a public vote, Kinkade said, as it did when Washington County Fire District No. 2 formally joined TVF&R last year. (Almost 63 percent of voters opted to dissolve District No. 2 in November 2016.)
'Full-service' moniker doesn't mean self-reliance
Kinkade said agencies in western Washington County are among many in Oregon looking at administrative mergers as a means of reducing overhead costs and improving response times.
"Now, Hillsboro, with a population pushing 100,000 right now, I believe, and Intel, they have enough depth. Portland, they have enough depth," Kinkade said. "These smaller communities are recognizing that this 'standing army' that you maintain in order to do this, it's beyond the ability of small communities to do, so you need to look at other models to do this."
At the outset of Saturday's meeting, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax remarked, "We pride ourselves in Forest Grove on being a full-service city — the only one in Washington County. Part of that full service is the fire department that has the name 'Forest Grove' attached to it."
But that belies that reality of fire services in the Forest Grove area, Kinkade's presentation suggested.
Many common forms of emergency response — battling a house fire or a brush fire, or administering CPR to an unconscious person, for instance — actually require more people on hand for an "effective response" than what Forest Grove Fire & Rescue can often muster, he said.
"We are not a full-service fire department in the sense that I can put out your house fires by ourselves," Kinkade said. "I have to work as a partnership — today. There's no choice."
He added, "Seventeen percent of our calls are handled by surrounding agencies, because we do not have enough resources."
Mayor: Increasing service levels is 'a values discussion'
One audience member, who identified herself as the spouse of a professional firefighter, asked what Forest Grove's plans are to address growth and the increasing number of emergency calls.
City voters last year approved a local option levy to maintain current funding levels for police and fire services in Forest Grove. City Manager Jesse VanderZanden said the passage of that levy doesn't mean the city cannot or will not see additional revenue, such as that which comes in as a result of population growth.
But, Truax said in response to the question from the audience, "I guess the blunt answer is we never have enough money to do that, and that's going to be a values discussion that we have with the voters. … How much are we going to ask people to pay in their hard-earned dollars to support all of those services that the city provides, and then where does that money go?"
A fire district like TVF&R has its own tax levy, completely separate from those of the cities and counties in the district, as a dedicated source of revenue for its operational expenses.
Asked point-blank by an audience member for his opinion on what the future of fire services in western Washington County should look like, Kinkade answered, "I think that the best solution for us is a future fire district."
Kinkade asked attendees to fill out short paper surveys about the fire authority concept, which VanderZanden collected during a break in the meeting. Those surveys will be tabulated and their results presented to the Forest Grove City Council, Kinkade said.
The annual town meeting is a Forest Grove tradition that dates back decades. Even as the city has grown in size, it still holds a meeting on the last Saturday in January to give members of the community who might not otherwise attend city meetings — which are usually held on weeknights — a chance to hear from and ask questions of their local officials. Video of the meeting is also streamed on Facebook Live.
A complimentary light breakfast, including scrambled eggs, muffins and Peruvian ham, was provided for attendees by Forest Grove restaurant Yellow Llama.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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