Fire district neglected key public oversight initiatives
May 20, 2013
The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board of directors has neglected to implement three key oversight measures after the passage of a 2012 tax measure that added $52 a year to constituents’ property tax bills.
The tax measure, which provided the financially constrained fire district with an $850,000 infusion of cash in March 2012, was accompanied by three requirements designed to provide public oversight of how the money was to be spent.
The first requirement stipulated the district establish a separate account for the tax measure- derived funds to track and report expenditures.
The second requirement mandated the district prepare an annual report detailing how the funds were to be used.
“When we were putting together the plan to address the financial issues, we didn’t read the fine print.”
— Board Chairman Warren Knox
Finally, the district was required to establish a citizens oversight committee to act as a liaison between the district and the taxpayers.
During the Thursday regular board meeting, Chairman Warren Knox said none of the three requirements had been met.
Knox said the district will take immediate steps to comply with the requirements and said the district will contact its legal counsel to develop the structure of an oversight committee and an account.
“When we were putting together the plan to address the financial issues, we didn’t read the fine print,” Knox said, adding that the requirements were likely included as a boiler plate resolution developed by the district’s consultant.
“This is what you signed up for,” said Fred Buhler, a constituent who spoke during public comment. “The language is pretty clear.”
The fire district is not only bound to report the expenditures related to the money but to ensure the money is spent in a way that is consistent with the intent as publicly expressed by the district prior to approval in the measure, Buhler said.
“For instance, salary increases — was that part of the original intent?” he asked.
Funding salaries to keep stations open was among the stated reasons for needing a tax measure, but “an increase in salaries would be part of what an oversight committee would look at,” Buhler said.
In November, less than eight months after the voters passed the tax measure, the board voted to restore salary step increases and benefits to the firefighters, who had given away those bargaining chips the previous year to help the district balance its budget.
Lisa LaBarbera, the former human resources director, said the increases and benefits were retroactive to January, when the board had only budgeted for a restoration retroactive to June, costing the district an additional $20,000, which was not budgeted for in the current fiscal year.
LaBarbera recently filed papers with the Nevada County Elections Office to recall Director Keith Grueneberg for restoring the benefits to firefighter, among other complaints.
Grueneberg, who began 2013 as the board chair, was deposed by his fellow board members in March, despite the move being characterized by Knox and Hanson as a voluntary resignation.
On Friday, Knox said the approximately $850,000 per year derived from the tax measure is being used for its intended purpose — to fund salaries necessary to keep stations open and maintain service levels for constituents.
“We are not using the money for any new expenses. We are using it to recover what we lost in revenue after the real estate debacle,” Knox said.
Knox said providing salary increases on a merit basis is an essential part of how a competitive public agency does business.
“Over time we have to maintain quality people in the district,” he said. “We have to pay them a living wage, or they will go someplace else where they are paid better.”
Knox said that people must be promoted from within the district as they carry institutional knowledge that is important to the optimal operation of the fire district.
Later in the meeting, Battalion Chief Jerry Funk, who is filling in as chief with fellow Battalion Chief Jim Turner, revealed a portion of the firefighting equipment was on the verge of disrepair and recommended the board expend $75,000 over a three-year period to purchase 34 new “turnouts.”
Turnouts refer to the system of outer protective clothing firefighters use.
“I think this is what tax measure money should be used for,” said Linda Chaplin, a resident of the fire district, who said she voted in favor of the tax measure but has since been displeased with how the board has spent the funds.
Director Mark Bass said the turnouts should be bought as soon as possible.
“It’s a safety issue. We should buy the equipment and then figure out a way to pay for it,” Bass said.
Grueneberg agreed, saying the staff-recommended method of financing the purchase over three years was not ideal.
“I don’t want to finance expendable items,” he said. “We could have a situation where a crew responds to a car accident, ruins its turnouts, and we’re stuck paying for something we don’t even have.”
The board voted to spend $15,000 on wildland fire gear for the current fiscal year and then fund the additional equipment purchases during the next fiscal year after staff produces an inventory of need.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.