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FG council mulls pros and cons of 'fire authority'

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A Western Washington County Fire Authority would make local departments more efficient, but decrease city control

The Forest Grove City Council held a work session with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue Chief Michael Kinkade Monday, Feb. 13, about the possibility of forming a Western Washington County Fire Authority.

This is the second work session the council has held on the topic.

Currently, inter-governmental agreements allow Kinkade to act as chief for the five rural and city fire departments related to Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston.

But a fire authroity would improve on that arrangemenet, Kinkade said.

It would save the city nearly $17,000 a year and slightly increase the number of employees the city could hire, probably equivalent to one half-time employee.

But more important than the meager savings, Kinkade said, would be the chance to increase collaboration and efficiency with a consolidated agreement and put the department in a better position after his eventual retirement.

A fire authority would allow the three cities to share volunteers, a volunteer coordinator, two administrative assistants and a logistics technician. It would also streamline the pay system.

Currently, volunteers can serve only in one city unless they fill out paperwork for each, where they'd have to receive separate workers' compensation and insurance packages for each. It's complicated and not sustainable, Kinkade said.

Paid firefighters would remain staff members of each city and Cornelius would gain an extra employee, raising its current costs a bit.

The proposed Fire Authority agreement would also pave the way for individual departments to either create their own western Washington County district or join Beaverton-based Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue at some point if all parties decided that's something they wanted to pursue, Kinkade said.

The partnership would also allow the five fire services to share the cost of equipment — backup fire engines they now maintain on their own, for example — and perhaps even a new facility.

Kinkade said his departments are not meeting the national benchmarks for response times but more volunteers, staff and facilities could improve their efforts.

Neighboring fire departments usually respond to Forest Grove emergency events because there just aren't enough paid and volunteer firefighters in town he said.

In addition, a fire authority would allow the parties to leave the agreement at any time with a year's notice if for some reason it isn't working out, Kinkade said.

Councilor Elena Uhing expressed concern about the idea that that Forest Grove could just go back to how they ran their department before if they eventually decided it wasn't working. "I don't think it's so easy," she said.

In addition, Uhing has heard from residents that they value local control of their city services, particularly at the annual town hall meeting last month, where residents expressed that the city providing its own services to residents was even more important than the cost.

Town hall attendance is a sampling of 50 people in a town of more than 22,000, though, Kinkade said, and his department cannot provide full fire service with current staffing and budget levels. Forest Grove Fire & Rescue cannot provide hazardous spill cleanup, for example, among other things.

"Educating the citizens is going to be very important," said Councilor Malynda Wenzl. "Grovers want that local control."

The city would still have some local control with a Western Washington County Fire Authority, but not as much. That's because the governing body would be composed of one representative from each participating agency — Forest Grove, Cornelius, their respective rural fire and protection districts and Gaston Rural Fire District. The city of Forest Grove would still pay the most, but would only have one vote on the board.

Kinkade will be preparing a draft of the agreement with the city attorney in the next months.