City, fire districts working toward resolution of debt

Fire Districts 16 and 17 still owe the City of Hoquiam about $34,000 — the same amount they owed two months ago when city officials threatened to cut off all ambulance service. But the Hoquiam Fire Department is still sending aid up to Copalis Crossing and Humptulips.

City Administrator Brian Shay said he’s at a loss for what to do. The districts, the city and the state Department of Health have held a few meetings, but no agreement has been reached.

“I mean, it was a good discussion, but I don’t know if any progress was made in the end,” Shay said. “It really felt like a union mediation meeting. The state met with the city separately, they met with the districts separately, we met as a group. We agree on what the needs are, we agree on what the issues are. But how to solve them, that’s not so clear.”

“Nothing was really solved at the meeting,” he added. “There was just a general agreement that moving forward we would work on a long-term solution.”

But state officials came away with a different impression. Michael Lopez, a Department of Health official who oversees emergency medical service coverage, was at the meeting, as was a representative from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office at the request of state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. Hargrove lives in Fire District 16.

“The results of that meeting were really positive in that it got everyone together again,” Lopez said. “I feel very confident that everyone has the same goals.”

“We don’t have a lot of details yet, but those will come out over the next few weeks,” he added.

But Shay said he wants to see tangible progress in the form of a payment plan for the districts. He said he’d have no qualms about continuing to provide the districts with ambulance service so long as they pay their bills.

“As long as they’re willing to pay for it, we’re willing to provide the service,” Shay said. “But when you look at the past history, they owe as much money right now as they did 12 months ago. And if you go back 12 months again, it’s the same.”

Teena Butterfield, a commissioner and 33-year firefighter for Fire District 17, which covers the Humptulips area, said it’s not the current commissioners’ fault that they owe so much money. She said the district’s debt of about $15,000 was accumulated by a former group of commissioners and district secretary who stopped paying bills.

She said her district is waiting to hear from Hoquiam to work out a payment plan, and all sides just need to get along until the matter is sorted out.

“I would like people to stop throwing poop,” Butterfield said. “It’ll work out, it will come out in the wash.”

But Shay said he doesn’t think the issue is just going to solve itself — he’d like to see some leadership from the districts, Grays Harbor Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Daniel Canfield or from the state.

“It was never decided who was going to head this up,” Shay said. “Is Mike Lopez going to head this? Or Dr. Canfield?”

Commissioners from Fire District 16, which covers Copalis Crossing, couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.