A merger to bring more emergency services to Cascade Locks has been terminated due to a revenue shortfall — well before the one-year trial period ended.
The City of Hood River has decided to cover its losses by pulling out of its agreement with the rural town on Dec. 31. That news came just five months after the consolidation of services under the Hood River Fire Department. Cascade Locks officials are now scrambling to ensure that there is no lapse of protection once that aid is withdrawn.
“We had monetary challenges whether or not this worked out but now we have to go to Plan B and figure out what that is,” said Robert Willoughby, city administrator of Cascade Locks.
He plans to research all of the available options — including hiring a part-time fire chief — and present these alternatives to the city council for discussion on Dec. 8.
On Monday, Hood River City Manager Lynn Guenther visited the council meeting to outline the budget problems that had led to his decision. He said the expected number of ambulance runs from Cascade Locks had been much lower than originally planned. In addition, Guenther said out of the 93 times that Hood River was dispatched to the scene of a medical emergency since July, it only transported 32 people. That problem, he said, was compounded by a collection rate that averaged 49 percent in Hood River but only 33 percent in Cascade Locks. To offset a continuing problem with the lack of available volunteers, Guenther said Hood River was forced to pay out $24,200 in overtime costs during the month of October alone to ensure that a paid staffer was always available.
He said because of these problems the $63,000 per year that Cascade Locks paid Hood River was far below the amount that was needed to cover costs. For example, he said about $150,000 per year would have to be paid out in wages to three paramedics. He said $24,000 was also spent for a modular unit that was placed behind the fire station to provide housing when one of these individuals was on duty.
“I don’t want this to end in sour grapes, we’re not blaming anyone for what is happening, the bottom line is that this is a business and I can’t ask the citizens in Hood River to subsidize our operations here,” Guenther said.
On July 1 the two cities entered into a one-year trial contract that was intended to help Cascade Locks cover gaps in service. One of the big problems, said Willoughby, was that it was difficult to rally volunteers during the day because many citizens commuted to other areas for employment. In return for the annual payment, Hood River agreed to provide all volunteers with advanced training opportunities in both firefighting and emergency medical care.
For 10 years prior to the merger Cascade Locks had wanted to employ a full-time fire/medical expert but was unable to afford the prices of wages and benefits. A consultant hired in 1998 had recommended that an emergency services director be hired to protect the city from liability issues brought by an increase in state regulations.
Willoughby said the problem of manning the fire department with a limited number of fully-trained volunteers has been further complicated by the recent activation of chief Mike Renault, who serves in the Oregon Army National Guard.
“We need a reliable core of people for our fire and ambulance calls who are around during the day,” Willoughby informed the elected body at the Nov. 24 meeting. Next week, Hood River and Cascade Locks officials will begin negotiations for the disbursement of equipment and supplies.
“One thing we’re not going to do is leave you in worse shape than when we came here,” Guenther said.