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Fire districts in Toutle, Castle Rock closer to agreement on ALS services

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Fire officials in North Cowlitz County are closer to an arrangement by which Toutle would pay Castle Rock for paramedic services, though further compromises are expected before both sides reach an agreement.

Discussed during a workshop held Feb. 18, officials from Cowlitz County Fire District 3, in Toutle, presented a proposal to Cowlitz County Fire District 6, in Castle Rock, outlining what District 3 felt they could pay for paramedic services, which District 6 currently provides to patients in the Toutle area.

Under a long-standing informal agreement, District 6 has been providing District 3 with paramedic services for free, but last year, under the leadership of interim chief Kurt Stich, whose home district in the Longview area had just resolved a similar issue, District 6 learned it is a violation of state law to be offering their services for free when District 3 is unable to reciprocate with their own paramedics.

District 6 issued a formal letter toward the end of last summer informing District 3 of the situation and officials from both districts met Jan. 14 for the first of multiple expected meetings to resolve the matter.

During meeting a second last week, District 3 stated they would be able to pay District 6 $119,000 over the next five years in exchange for paramedic services, with District 3 Commissioner Dan Belding stating the plan would give his district more time to consider long-term financial arrangements.

"We looked at our financial statement and what we could afford," he said, explaining the proposal would be for District 3 to pay District 6 $44,000 immediately to cover the first two years of service, then $25,000 annually for the following three years.

Belding added the intention of his district would then be to seek out an increase to their general levy rate (currently at $0.95 per $1,000 of assessed value) as well as explore the possibility of grant funding.

But commissioners with District 6 noted this proposal falls short of their assessment of the services being provided by their paramedics, having determined through an independent study a charge of $380 per dispatch would be more appropriate, which would cost District 3 around $72,000 per year based on current service levels.

District 3 Commissioner Tom Baltazar noted District 6 is currently receiving no payment from District 3 for paramedic responses, and said $119,000 for five years would be an improvement on that. But District 6 Secretary Tiffany Palmer said the proposal would remain far below District 6's costs to run a call, as insurance and public health programs can only reimburse so much.

Baltazar, as well as Belding, both noted conversations from the Jan. 14 meeting, during which District 6 stated they understand alternative forms of payment, such as equipment and vehicles, could be accepted to comply with the prohibition against gifting, with District 6 commissioners stating they would be willing to entertain such options.

"We're open to other forms of compensation, whatever could work," said District 6 Commissioner Monte Martinsen, adding, in regard to the need for District 3 not to overspend and the need for District 6 to accept what fairly represents the services they are providing, both must "be fair to our taxpayers."

District 6 Commissioner Mike Kayser added he would like to see specifics of how District 3 reached the numbers they did in their proposal, stating he would like to see a breakdown of expected costs before considering approval of the proposal.

A meeting to follow up on the matter was scheduled tentatively for March 13 at 4 p.m. at District 3 headquarters. For additional information, call District 6 at (360) 274-4413.

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