Local leaders to begin talks about fire district merger
This month, a task force comprised of representatives from five fire agencies in western Washington County will hold its first meeting as officials look into the possibility of merging them into a single fire district.
Michael Kinkade serves as chief of the Forest Grove and Cornelius municipal fire departments, as well as the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston rural fire protection districts. The agencies share other command staff as well, and in some ways, they already function essentially as a single district. But in other ways — including annual budgeting, the training and certification of volunteers, and the stationing of many personnel and assets — they are separate.
"I do five separate budgets that require five separate budget hearings, five separate budget committees, a lot of work that goes into each one of these budgets, and they're interrelated," Kinkade said.
He added, bluntly, "The period between February and May (is) hell to me."
The situation is untenable, said Kinkade, who started as Forest Grove's fire chief and then later took on the role for neighboring Cornelius and the nearby Gaston Rural Fire District. At Forest Grove's annual town meeting early this year, he compared himself to the apocryphal frog in a pot of water that is gradually raised to a boil. Kinkade has managed in his role, but he worries about things breaking down once he retires.
"When I started in 2008, if you had asked me as a new chief, without understanding the community or the communities or everything that's involved ... I would have failed miserably," Kinkade said. "I've been able to do this slowly over time."
Forest Grove mayor receptive to idea
Merging is "inevitable," Kinkade believes — whether it's the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston fire districts uniting in some form or another, or whether it's the smaller districts being annexed, as several others in Washington and Yamhill counties have been, by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue to the east.
But in order for the districts to merge, voters in each would have to consent. And before voters can weigh in, the governing bodies for each agency — the Forest Grove and Cornelius city councils, and the boards of directors for the three rural fire protection districts — have to agree on a proposal to place on the ballot. It is not yet a certainty they will.
"Anything that makes the delivery of fire protection and emergency services more efficient, I'm in favor of," said Mayor Pete Truax, who is expected to be one of the City of Forest Grove's representatives on the ad hoc task force being formed to discuss the concept. "And everything that I've heard from Chief Kinkade indicates that that's the overarching concern."
But Truax is also the top elected official for what would be the proposed fire district's largest city. He would like it to be the district's locus of control as well.
"I would rather it be done under the aegis of Forest Grove than an umbrella group, but if Forest Grove is a significant player in this, I'm also OK with that," Truax said.
Both Kinkade and Truax's thinking has evolved on the issue, they said.
The fire chief said that after initially weighing the idea of some sort of "fire authority" that would coordinate the districts without formally merging them, he has come to believe they should simply take the leap and unify as one.
"What's the difference between an intergovernmental agreement with one entity and a governing board, and the current situation I have right now?" Kinkade asked rhetorically. "It is feasible. It provides service. None of our five agencies could provide service to their communities by themselves; it's ludicrous on the face of it it."
The mayor, meanwhile, said he has become more receptive to the idea of a merger after initially opposing it.
"We're not going to be doing this tomorrow or the next month or so on and so forth, but that serious discussion is going to be in the not-too-distant future," Truax said.
Of the proposal, he added, "There has to be a way that we can do it and still maintain some sort of control, local impact, whatever you want to call it, (and) at the same time, make sure that those services are delivered safely and quickly throughout western Washington County."
Proposal includes Forest Grove, Cornelius, Gaston
What Truax wants to avoid is seeing western Washington County's fire agencies brought into TVF&R. The state's largest fire district annexed Washington County Fire District No. 2, which covered North Plains and rural Hillsboro, last year and took over both urban and rural fire services in Newberg this summer.
"I get very concerned about decisions about fire safety and emergency management, concerning Forest Grove in particular, being made east of here," Truax said. "And they would be."
TVF&R is headquartered in Tigard.
The task force is scheduled to meet for the first time on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Because it is an ad hoc working group, that meeting is not open to the public. Kinkade said he expects the first item on the agenda will be having the task force establish a vision and goals.
Right now, the only agencies involved are Forest Grove city and rural, Cornelius city and rural, and the Gaston Rural Fire District. Kinkade has said once a joint district is established — if it is established — it could possibly expand in the future to cover more of western Washington County. It could also conceivably grow into northwestern Yamhill County, where Gaston is one of several small rural fire districts serving the area.
The Banks Fire District's administrative structure is entirely separate from that of Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston; it has its own chief, Rodney Linz. However, due to their proximity, Banks Fire units often respond to calls in the Forest Grove area and vice versa. Banks firefighters also participate in some Forest Grove community events, like at last month's Corn Roast festival.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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