Matthew Renda

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February 9, 2013
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Nevada County Consolidated Fire District under fire for mismanagement

At a time when members of Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s board of directors are attempting to convince other fire agencies to surrender their resources to their management, the district is reportedly subject to a grand jury investigation for a litany of financial mismanagement.

In a letter dated Jan. 8, James Robertson, a certified public accountant with the Grass Valley firm McSweeney & Associates, which audits the fire department, cites an impending investigation of the Nevada County Grand Jury as one of the reasons the firm increased the cost of its services for the district by $3,500.

“The contentious tone of the public comments at the board meetings, coupled with concerns raised by employees and notification that the grand jury was investigating issues at the district, required we increase our analyses and testing,” the letter states.

The concerns put forward by employees, according to the letter, include a practice of lending the public agency’s gasoline credit cards to individuals outside the agency.

“(An employee) informed us that gas cards had been given out to members of Fire Safe Council and possible other members of the (community) by Chief (Tim) Fike,” the letter states.

The letter indicates the employee heard about the gas card issue from another firefighter from outside the district, the letter states.

Fike, who was ousted from the district in June after engaging in a physical altercation with one of his employees in March, was awarded a $75,000 severance package.

Robertson’s letter casts several doubts about the mathematical soundness in how the package was put together.

“Prior years’ MOU amendments were reviewed in detail to ensure the correct pay rate was used in calculating his final pay,” the letter states. “All payments to Chief Fike were recalculated.”

The accounting firm also recalculated the compensated hours balances, reviewed board minutes to gain an accurate understanding of the approval for the severance agreement and adjusted the accrual of the chief’s final pay.

The letter also reveals similarly incorrect payments were made to Spike Newby, a retired annuitant who functioned as a battalion chief for Consolidated Fire.

Robertson’s letter further complains of disorganization and duplicity at Consolidated Fire.

“When information on the details of Tim Fike’s retirement was initially requested, there was confusion from the payroll department on what we needed to see,” the letter states. “We were told that this was a 2013 audit issue and that we didn’t need to see it for the current year’s audit. We had to request the information a second time in order to get everything we needed.”

Similarly, The Union issued several freedom of information requests and endured delay when attempting to procure public documents that related to an investigation conducted by Gary Henslee into the incident involving Fike’s physical altercation with another employee.

The letter also complains of general disorganization at the fire district.

“Financial records and administrative staff are physically located in two locations,” the letter states. “Procuring documents and/or obtaining information from staff always requires more time and effort than would be expected.”

The picture of widespread financial mismanagement painted by the letter comes at a time when Consolidated Fire is not merely attempting to formulate a new agreement with Grass Valley Fire Department and Nevada City Fire Department but attempting to convince both entities to relinquish control of their modest staffs to Consolidated.

The Joint Operational Agreement essentially allows the agencies to mutually respond to medical and fire incidents in each other’s respective jurisdiction. Consolidated Fire has been seeking a cost-sharing agreement so the three agencies could be managed by one chief, saving taxpayer money, according to previous reports.

The stumbling block is oversight.

Grass Valley City Administrator Dan Holler wants a Joint Powers Authority in place that would require the new chief to report to the City Council on how ther fire department consisting of 13.5 firefighters would be managed.

Keith Greuneberg, chairman of the Consolidated Fire board, said his agency is not open to a JPA, saying that it would add an additional layer of bureaucracy.

“A JPA is not acceptable,” Greuneberg wrote in a letter sent to both cities. “This has been emphasized several times by our board.”

Consolidated Fire firefighters expressed impatience at the lack of agreement in place.

“I’m one of the people that was around for the original Joint Operating Agreement, and I can say the firefighters have done an excellent job of co-existence,” said Wyatt Howell, president of Local 3800, at the Tuesday special meeting of the board of directors. “My question is — what is the stumbling block? There is some frustration among the troops because we are able to figure it out, so why can’t you?”

Board member David Hanson said a rigorous financial analysis involving call volume, staff time at various stations and equipment usage will be necessary before a fair and equitable cost-sharing arrangement can be finalized.

The three entities plan to formulate the financial analysis “in house” using staff, but contracting with an outside firm is possible.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda email or call 530-477-4239.

“When information on the details of Tim Fike’s retirement was initially requested, there was confusion from the payroll department on what we needed to see.”
— In a letter from James Robertson, certified public accountant

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The Union Updated Feb 9, 2013 05:56AM Published Feb 12, 2013 03:30AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.