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Boards, chief set July 1 to establish new fire authority district, beginning with admin staff

PMG FILE PHOTO - Scappoose firefighters on the scene of a trailer fire. Under a proposal to establish a fire authority, a separate district formed for the purpose of managing personnel, Scappoose and Columbia River Fire and Rescue firefighters would begin operating under the fire authority framework in July 2021.

Columbia River Fire and Rescue and Scappoose Rural Fire Protection District boards of directors met Sunday evening, Feb. 23, at Fultano's Pizza in Scappoose to work through a shared vision for the districts, which operate under a single fire chief, and to press forward with a fire authority concept.

But while the fire district boards and chief are moving full steam ahead toward development of a fire authority, Scappoose firefighter union representatives say they've been left out of discussions and question whether the initiative is being rushed.

The advertised three-hour special meeting and workshop followed a Feb. 13 joint meeting of the boards, where both boards voted to move foward and establish a fire authority. At its core, a fire authority would be set up as a separate district with its own board of directors cobbled together from the existing two boards with the specific purpose of managing Scappoose Fire and CRFR personnel.

A fire authority would expand the existing intergovernmental agreement forged between the two fire districts in 2015 that set up a single fire chief to oversee operations for both districts. District capital assets, such as buildings and fire engines, would remain in the possession of their current owners, either SRFPD or CRFR.

As a result of the Sunday meeting, board members and Fire Chief Dennis Hoke are aiming to have the fire authority up and running by July 1. In its first iteration, firefighters and EMS staff would be omitted, yet all administrative staff, the fire chief, division chiefs and others that function under the current IGA would be included, with the possibility of maintenance shop staff and single-role paramedics added as well.

PMG FILE PHOTO - HOKE A year later, by July 2021, Hoke envisions all staff, including firefighters and EMS personnel, from both districts working within the fire authority framework.

"It is a means to keep cost under control as our budgets are not increasing but the cost of doing business is going up," Hoke emailed to the Spotlight on Feb. 25 in response to a question about the benefits of a fire authority.

"We had a very good workshop to help move the Fire Authority forward," noted SRFPD Board President David Graham regarding the Sunday meeting. "We all feel the FA will benefit both communities."

Hoke is cautious to note that a fire authority would not be a merger of the districts and would not result in a tax increase. As for next steps, he said the boards need to assemble a budget, launch a PR campaign, and start the legal filings to set the fire authority up as a district.

While the fire authority district would not be directly tax-funded — each fire district would maintain its current tax structure — it would provide the mechanism for SRFPD and CRFR to consolidate personnel such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics under a single management structure.

Some, including leaders with the Tualatin Valley Firefighters Union, which represents Scappoose firefighters, feel the push to implement the fire authority by July 1, a short four months from now, is too hasty — even considering firefighters and EMS personnel would not be absorbed into the fire authority at that time.

"That's a really, really aggressive timeline to accomplish it," said Ron Morgan, communications director for Tualatin Valley Firefighters Union.

Morgan said there hasn't been any outreach from the boards' directors or Chief Hoke to discuss how the fire authority would affect Scappoose firefighters.

"We have very limited information. We haven't had any involvement in the process," Morgan said. "We would love the opportunity to be involved and have an idea what's going on."

Some potential issues, he pointed out, include questions about the sharing of operations and finances, and whether it makes good political sense for the individual districts. He added that while the union tentatively supports the fire authority approach, one caveat is that it must be a good fit in south Columbia County.

"We support the idea of a fire authority, but only if it makes sense for the communities we serve," he said.

A final analysis by Matrix Consulting Group, a California agency, concluded the Scappoose and CRFR district would be best served by expanding the IGA and forming a fire authority. In the final Matrix report released Feb. 18, consultants point to Lane County, which saw two fire districts accelerate asset and personnel sharing via the formation of a fire authority in 2012.

A copy of the Matrix report is available here.

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