Fire board of directors seats hotly contested
October 13, 2012
Editor's note: Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board candidate John Leonard, and Higgins Area Fire Protection District board candidate Dan Fitzgerald, could not be reached for comment for this article.
One of the hottest races this election season is for seats on the board of directors for the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, which was recently rocked by internal strife after Chief Tim Fike stepped down amid allegations of employee abuse.
Fike had been involved in a physical altercation in March with fire mechanic Kevin Greene, which led to an investigation.
He was ousted from the position he held for about 15 years in late June when the board of directors voted 6-1 to award him a $75,000 severance package.
The district also has had budgetary issues that pushed administrators to pursue an ultimately successful sales tax increase.
Tom Carrington, Ronald Pennington, William Habblett Jr. and Linda Chaplin are vying for four, four-year seats, along with incumbents John Leonard, Robert Rhodes, and chair Warren Knox. One two-year seat only had Keith Grueneberg file, who is the incumbent.
Not surprisingly, a number of the candidates pledged to improve working relationships within the district.
"The district needs to address the internal and community rifts resulting from recent election and employee controversies," Pennington said.
"The top issues facing the fire district right now are strengthening intra-organization communication and morale, and improving community outreach to rebuild public trust," Chaplin said.
"Leadership and innovation need to be encouraged and rewarded. I believe I can present new perspectives on issues facing the district. I am interested in working with board members and staff to continue the district's commitment to excellence in fire service, but also realize changes are needed to improve the working relationship between the board, staff, and the community."
Current Chairman Knox acknowledged that a review of the district's policies and procedures across the board revealed they were "quite outdated."
"My whole focus is to make sure the district is run in an organized and very professional manner," he said.
"I think there's a number of things to do. We nee to improve district policies and procedures to ensure a fair and well-managed operation that can recruit and retain quality personnel in the face of significant changes in state and CalPers operational policies.
"We can't change the past, we can only look to the future," he added. "We're trying to build the best fire district we possibly can … and professionalism … is what our constituents expect of us."
And all the candidates saw continuing budget issues as a top priority.
Carrington cited fiscal responsibility and sound management practices regarding labor issues, pointing to 15 years' experience in dealing with budget and personnel issues.
"The top issues and challenges I see are stretching budget dollars, keeping stations open and fully staffed, and maintaining capital equipment," he said.
"Fire is the major public safety risk in Nevada County," Pennington noted.
Pennington, who cited 40 years of business experience in both the public and private sector, said that district funding needs to be stabilized at a level that sustains the district and is not burdensome to residents and property owners.
He also expressed concerns that regional operational and jurisdictional issues need to be resolved in order for all residents to receive appropriate services while complying with all regulations of the state and federal governments.
"The fire district faces the challenge of maintaining the professional level of services the residents of the district have come to expect, while operating with fluctuating and often declining revenue sources," said Habblett, a former director of the district for 12 years and a former volunteer firefighter.
"We need to finds ways to create a budget that will continue to provide excellent service to the residents and also offer professional career opportunities to the firefighters and personnel that choose to work for the district. The fire district is only as good as its firefighters."
"The challenge of running a fire district efficiently and effectively in a tight economy means difficult decisions will need to be made, balancing district goals with an obligation to spend taxpayer money responsibly," Chaplin said. "Long-term planning for the district's future is a necessity."
Chaplin cited her volunteer work as a board member of a local nonprofit trail organization, saying she learned how to work with personnel from a variety of agencies, with organizational budget requirements and understanding the responsibilities of providing services at levels the public expects.
Incumbents Knox and Rhodes both pointed to the consolidation of responsibilities as a much-needed solution.
"My personal view is that western Nevada County, including the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, should be one consolidated fire district," Rhodes said. "Having many small fire districts, separated by relatively short distances, each seeking their own funding source, is madness."
Knox called the district's personnel "an incredibly dedicated team of professionals bringing quality emergency services," but said they are spread extremely thin across the 143 square miles of western Nevada County.
"The economy has fundamentally altered our financial base, and the state has imposed huge additional, even useless, fees," he said. "Our constituents have supported us well, but we must not expect them to provide any additional funding. We must work smarter in the future, finding ways to keep needed boots on the ground, minimize overhead, and ensure equipment maintenance and replacement in a sustainable way."
Knox said a top challenge will be to recruit and hire a regionally focused fire chief, in cooperation with Nevada City and Grass Valley, in order to reduce administration overhead for all agencies and make more dollars available for emergency service delivery.
He added the district must impose strong financial controls that ensure the development and maintenance of sufficient capital reserves, to allow long-term planning for required and needed capital equipment replacement without any increases in district taxes.
Higgins Area Fire
The Higgins fire protection district has been struggling financially after a tax measure that would have provided additional revenue was voted down by district residents during the June primary election. Measure B, which would have raised the annual assessment on property owners within the district by $100, garnered 61 percent approval from voters — but the district needed 66.7 percent for the measure to succeed.
The failure of the measure has had a significant impact on department operations, the candidates for the board seats said. Challengers Chet Krage and Alex Crawford are vying for two seats against incumbent Dan Fitzgerald.
Krage noted that since July, the district has closed one station and laid off four or five staff members. Another impact has been longer response times, from six minutes to 10, he said.
"In my lifetime, I would have never thought we would see firemen needing to be laid off," Crawford said. "Well, that has been reality of late and needs to change. We have to start thinking outside of the box — start looking at grants, working with other departments on ideas, and planning for the future. Within all this, we need to make sure we are maintaining fire safety for the people and the fireman of Higgins Fire District."
Crawford, who highlighted the budget, growth and fire safety as top challenges, started his volunteer fire service career in 2002.
He finished his training in 2003 and since then, he has been heavily involved with the Higgins fire district organization.
"I feel I have seen this community and Higgins fire district go through the ups and downs of this economy," Crawford said. "I have the desire to ensure that Higgins Fire District moves forward in the right direction."
Krage cited his local community service, including seven years on Citizens for Highway 49 Safety, six years as commissioner on the Nevada County Transportation Commission, nine years as commissioner on the Nevada County Transit Services Commission.
"I am running to help restore and maintain the outstanding fire and emergency service we have had," he said.
"My professional and community service experience enables me to contribute budgeting, cost, contract, organization, and long-term planning skills."
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.