Grass Valley and Nevada City officials, still reeling from Nevada County Consolidated’s surprise move last week to independently appoint its own new fire chief, said they still hope to save at least some value out of the three-agency pact they worked on since early this year.
“We have been all working as a team on this for months,” said Grass Valley City Manager Bob Richardson on Wednesday, referring to a plan announced Aug. 14 to hire a single chief for all three jurisdictions. “The (Consolidated) board made their decision without any communication to any of the respective entities — we have yet to receive any information as to their intent.”
Richardson said he has asked Consolidated staff for copies of financial data released at Thursday’s public Consolidated board meeting.
Only a week earlier, all three entities had “left the table feeling great, handshakes all around, looking wonderful” about the plan to hire a single chief to share among the three jurisdictions and headquartered in Grass Valley, Nevada City Councilman Duane Strawser said.
“They presented the idea from the beginning,” he said. “It’s almost like, behind the scenes, they appointed someone in-house, which is what they wanted to do in the first place.”
He said he hopes last Thursday’s decision is not the final word.
“Some of the other board members may not be on board with this big flip,” he added. “I’m hoping we can sit down with everyone before this is completely irreversible.”
Move was financial, Consolidated directors say
Consolidated Fire board Chairman Warren Knox, who said he was “as surprised as everybody else” by the board’s actions Thursday night, said Wednesday he is contacting the cities to share the financial data that led board member Keith Grueneberg to name division chief Jim Turner as fire chief and division chief Jerry Funk as deputy chief. The motion was approved unanimously by the board after extensive discussion.
Grueneberg said at the time it was a question of a chief needing 100 percent focus on one fire department. But it was also about the money.
“They (staff) were doing a deep-drill analysis on the financials,” Knox said. “By the time I got the information on Thursday, there was no time to share it with our partner agencies.”
With no fire chief at the helm of Consolidated since the departure earlier this year of the latest in a series of chiefs and interim chiefs, Turner and Funk had been filling in for the last few months in the top slot while the shared services plan was being hammered out.
Turner, 44, a 21-year Consolidated veteran who also was chief at the former Alta Oaks Fire Department and a volunteer firefighter in Grass Valley, said he was “shocked initially” by the turn of events on Thursday. He said he has since gone out to meet with firefighters throughout the operation to answer questions and stabilize the troops.
“After meeting with all three shifts today, we are all clear on wanting to see a joint operation,” Turner said on Thursday. “We will do everything in our powers to make this organization stronger.”
Funk, 48, a Consolidated firefighter for 22 years and a firefighter in Fair Oaks and a volunteer with the former Gold Flat Fire Department for several years, agreed. He said last week’s board action was still preliminary and subject to a final decision at the September board meeting. Things could change between now and then, he said.
“Our board decision has caused some strife, but it hasn’t changed our joint operation,” Funk said. “If anything, it has made us stronger.”
Grass Valley Interim Chief Mark Buttron said his world was rocked a bit when he heard the news about Consolidated.
“We were surprised by the action of the board,” Buttron said. “We had been working as a collective group, cooperating as a team, and the actions of the (Consolidated) board altered that effort.”
However, Buttron said the joint operation is continuing intact as all involved are shifting through the fallout and awaiting the next steps.
“Operations are continuing as normal,” he said. “It really doesn’t have any impact on services provided by the three agencies.”
Nevada City Fire Chief Sam Goodspeed could not be reached for comment.
Nevada City seen as short-staffed, cash-strapped
At issue, of course, is money. All three fire agencies are facing steep increases in contributions they must make for employees’ retirement benefits through the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS. In addition, Consolidated, which uses 30 firefighters to staff four fire stations of six people per station, plus half a station each in Nevada City and in Grass Valley, has no leeway for sick or vacationing employees.
“The cost of overtime in the district is really high,” Knox said, referring to figures released at the Thursday night board meeting.“If someone calls in sick, we have to backfill with overtime.”
Richardson, however, said he had thought the shared services model would allow for some financial fixes.
“Grass Valley was interested in the shared chief model, not just to save a little money up front by hiring one chief, but to hire a highly qualified professional who could efficiently allocate the resources of all three entities, knowing that over the next three to five years, we will all have significant budget challenges due to uncontrollable cost increases through the state,” he said.
“The real issue is that we’re all going to get squeezed really hard,” Richardson said. “By getting a professional who is really good at creating efficiencies, we can address that.”
Consolidated board members, however, said Thursday that the shared services plan relied too heavily on them bolstering a short-staffed and cash-strapped Nevada City Fire Department. Nevada City, with a paid staff of three, and diminishing volunteers, was set to contribute only 8 percent of the cost of hiring a single chief. Nevada City officials also did not want the shared operation to use their one fire station, Station 54 on Providence Mine Road, to house the joint operations because they said that would mean they would no longer offer fire services from the station.
Consolidated board members, however, said the station only operates as a Nevada City station because it is half-staffed by Consolidated.
They said they would have preferred to put the headquarters of the shared operation at Station 54 instead of Grass Valley Fire Department as tentatively agreed to on Aug. 14.
“Their fire department budget is only a half-million,” said Consolidated board member David Hanson, referring to Nevada City. “It takes $1 million to run one fire station.”
He said the Nevada City Police Department, by contrast, was financed at $1.2 million. He said it would make more sense for the city to contract with Consolidated for fire services, instead of trying to maintain a full-service fire department with only half a staff and half a budget.
Nevada City Manager Mark Prestwich, who came into the fray when he was hired just two months ago, said he was still hoping that a flexible plan could be made to create a hybrid headquarters/fire station at Station 54 so that it could fulfill both functions.
“The city wants to proceed in a dialogue as to how we can deliver services efficiently and effectively,” he said.
Meanwhile, Penn Valley Fire Protection District, which pulled out of the shared services plan last month, has placed on its agenda for September a discussion item on whether to promote newly named Acting Chief Don Wagner as permanent fire chief, said board Chairman Kurt Grundel. When Wagner was named acting chief, it was with the idea he would either step down if a single chief were hired for all four agencies, or be considered for promotion to fire chief if the process went south.
“The reason we backed off is that we could not, under any circumstances, based on the materials we were given, justify that we would be getting better services for lower cost,” Grundel said.
He said Penn Valley was earlier open to the concept of a shared chief, but “if we couldn’t improve services or lower the cost to our taxpayers, that there was no point in proceeding.”
Grundel had no comment on the recent events, except to say he could understand where it would make sense for Nevada City to contract with Consolidated.
“Higgins (fire district) contracts with the state of California,” he said. “It’s perfectly good.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
“The (Consolidated) board made their decision without any communication to any of the respective entities — we have yet to receive any information as to their intent.”
Grass Valley City Manager Bob Richardson