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Consultant's report recommends fire districts form separate authority for personnel management

PMG FILE PHOTO - Capital assets, such as fire engines, owned separately by Scappoose Rural Fire Protection District and Columbia River Fire and Rescue would not be transferred to a proposed fire authority district. The majority of personel, however, would be managed within the fire authority framework should one be created. The Scappoose Rural Fire Protection District and Columbia River Fire and Rescue boards of directors earlier this month received the final draft of a consultancy's report that fundamentally outlines ways the districts could improve operations, including a recommendation for the joint boards to establish a fire authority district.

Matrix Consulting Group drafted the "Cooperative Services Study" report and released the final draft on Feb. 3. It includes detailed profiles of both fire districts, including call volumes, station house geography, tax collection rates, scope of operations, analyses of emergency medical and fire protection services, and

more.

The report also outlines a series of administrative and operational recommendations, ranked by priority, for the fire boards and fire chief to mark off in pursuit of expanding the existing intergovernmental agreement, which was signed in 2016.

"Creating an operational alliance is the best choice for the two Fire Districts," the report notes. "It allows for each Fire District to maintain their identity and their existing tax rates while continuing to share resources."

The recommendation continues, "More importantly, it provides a single management system for personnel to report to and for the administration of the fire protection system."

HOKE While not defined in state law, Fire Chief Dennis Hoke said fire authorities are an increasingly popular option for fire districts. Essentially, a fire authority is set up as a district legally separate from Scappoose Fire and CRFR districts. Capital assets, such as stations and fire engines, remain under ownership of the existing districts, while employees, and supervision of those employees, is shifted to the fire authority.

For example, firefighters, paramedics and EMS technicians would likely be employees of the fire authority, not Scappoose Fire or CRFR.

"Anything that has a title is still the ownership of the respective districts. It's still a taxpayer asset," Fire Chief Dennis Hoke pointed out Wednesday, Feb. 12. "It does not get transferred to the fire authority."

A fire authority district, if established, would not have taxing authority and would be governed by board members from Scappoose and CRFR. Should a conflict arise, the full boards of each district could get involved, Hoke said.

"It's not a tax district. That's the beauty of this. We get to bring all of the employees and the maintenance and the operating and stuff under one umbrella without changing the tax rate," Hoke added. "I think that's a really important concept. Then both districts see the economies of scale by being able to combine those services."

Permanent tax rates for the districts wildly vary, with Scappoose Fire District property owners paying $1.11 per $1,000 of assessed value, whereas CRFR property owners pay $2.97 per $1,000 of valuation.

Scappoose property owners, however, have routinely passed short-term local option levies that have added to their total tax payment. Most recently in 2016, Scappoose Fire District voters agreed to an additional $1.24 per $1,000 in assessed value, raising the total to $2.35 per $1,000. The local option levy is set to expire June 30, 2022.

In fact, the permanent mill rate variance between Scappoose Fire District and CRFR is identified as one of the main obstacles to merging the districts, the report states. Hoke also said he doesn't think a merger would sit well with voters in either district.

Hoke said his recommendation is for the joint fire districts to expand the existing IGA to form a fire authority as of July 1. If successful, the authority could be further expanded in July 2021.

"We take this thing out for a test drive, get the bugs worked out of it, and figure out if this is the right decision for Scappoose and Columbia River Fire and Rescue," Hoke said.

The Scappoose and Columbia River Fire and Rescue boards were scheduled to discuss the IGA and the Matrix report during a joint board meeting Thursday evening, Feb. 13, after the Spotlight had gone to press.

Additionally, the boards were scheduled to meet Thursday in closed session to re-

view Fire Chief Hoke's performance.


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