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IGA between fire districts is a step in the right direction

There are numerous reasons to support the recent intergovernmental agreement between Scappoose Fire and Columbia River Fire and Rescue fire districts allowing for one fire chief — SFD Chief Mike Greisen — to administratively supervise both districts.

The agreement in many ways has all the trappings of an experiment, by itself a rarity in government these days. And that’s unfortunate. We need more creative thinking when it comes to the administration of government services, especially when there is a chance to increase operational efficiencies, as the agreement between the fire districts portends to do.

The official line from both districts is that the two-year agreement allows for the sharing of resources during a time of increased demand for emergency services in Columbia County. According to a joint statement from the districts, both have experienced between an 8 and 10 percent jump in demand for emergency services each year. Yet, as demand has risen, both have seen the departure of upper management personnel.

With the agreement to share upper management administrative operations, and the expense of those operations, the districts will increase efficiencies and free up resources that can be redirected toward improving emergency services for taxpayers in both districts.

It sounds great. Indeed, we would suggest it is a model other mutual service tax districts — schools, police, etc. — in south Columbia County should explore for increasing efficiencies in their operations and returning the greatest benefit to the taxpayer. As the trove of resources for such districts is increasingly limited, it makes sense to consolidate administrative services to reduce the huge expense outlay of paying for upper management personnel. Such employees routinely draw more than six-figure salaries, not to mention the always-burdensome Public Employee Retirement System allocation, as well as other benefits.

An additional perk we hope to be realized by the agreement would be setting CRFR back on the path to achieve good standing with its taxpayers and quieting some of the noise from CRFR operations.

News out of CRFR has been less than inspiring since voters rejected the district’s proposed $15 million bond levy in the May and November 2014 elections. Though the bond sale was espoused as a way to raise money for the purchase of necessary equipment and to make seismic upgrades at the Rainier station, the failure of it to pass — twice in the span of six months — can only be viewed as a vote of low confidence in the way CRFR was evolving. There just wasn’t enough trust in the need at CRFR for voters to want to approve it. And, at $2.97 per $1,000 of assessed property value, CRFR has one of the highest permanent tax rates in the county. Why the need to pony up more?

Comparatively, Scappoose voters last May overwhelmingly passed a five-year increase of the Scappoose Rural Fire district’s rate, taking it from 96 cents to $1.24 per $1,000 of assessed property value. More than just a demonstration of trust, the approval signaled the community’s commitment to the SFD. It’s that community commitment that has been absent from CRFR, and we look for it to be restored under Greisen’s supervision.

The May 2015 election resulted in two of the three contested races for CRFR board of director seats swinging in favor of the challengers, resulting in the ouster of two long-time CRFR board members. That decision by voters, we believe, is already paying dividends as evidenced by the CRFR board’s willingness to enter into the agreement with SFD.

By Christmas, CRFR was back in public relations management mode when a 25-year division chief, who was in charge of the agency’s operations, was placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation into misconduct allegations. Former Division Chief Ron Youngberg ultimately retired amid the internal investigation. CRFR rejected the Spotlight’s requests to review the investigative report into Youngberg, though we fully believe it is a public document subject to disclosure under Oregon Public Records Law. We petitioned Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison in March to review that denial and issue an opinion on whether the report should be disclosed under the law, and still await an official word from the district attorney.

Now, CRFR Fire Chief Jay Tappan is retiring, though the board was expected to approve a work-back agreement Thursday evening, after the Spotlight went to press, for Tappan to stay on as a part-time employee for the next three months to help with the transition.

We clearly recognize the opportunity and need for more efficient operations that can be brought about by the agreement and will be attentive to how the experiment concludes. It feels like a step in the right direction for both districts, and it reflects a creative approach geared toward achieving the greatest benefit for the south Columbia County taxpayer. And with taxpayer value as the core motivation behind the agreement, it should be a win for all involved.