Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board’s top official disagrees with a new report that says the district was “remiss” in not disclosing an agreement it made with firefighters to restore merit pay increases and vacation pay if the special tax measure passed in 2012.
“The only way that (side agreement) could have been done is by a public vote taken at a public meeting,” board Chair Warren Knox said Thursday. “It was a formal change to an MOU (memorandum of understanding) — it had to be talked about and voted on at a public meeting.”
Knox said the side agreement was, in fact, discussed and voted on at a public meeting in December 2011. No media was present at the meeting, he said.
But the first Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Citizens Oversight Committee report, released last week, doesn’t think the district did enough to get the word out.
“In the committee’s view, the district was remiss in not pointing out to district residents the MOU agreed to in December 2011 included a side letter that committed the district ‘to reopen negotiations after the March/April joint review of the district incomes,’” the report says, apparently quoting from the side agreement.
“‘If the district’s income comes in above what is anticipated, the (firefighters) union has the right to reopen negotiations in the Holiday Pay and Merit Increase sections,” the side agreement reads, according to the oversight committee report.
“Failure to disclose this side agreement is construed by the committee as misleading the public,” says the report, signed by former committee chair Alfred Buhler and current chair Richard Ulery.
Knox said Thursday that he met with Buhler this week to discuss the report, which the district board voted last week to “accept and take under advisement.”
He said the board’s actions at the time needed to be made clear.
“That’s why we said we would take it under advisement,” Knox said Thursday, insisting that the side agreement was voted on publicly as required. “What more does any group — the NID (Nevada Irrigation District) do? We make the minutes available to the public.”
The special tax measure did, in fact, pass in February 2012. After the passage, firefighters who had conceded their merit pay increase prior to the election were granted the increases totaling about $18,000, according to the oversight report. In addition, about $39,800 in holiday pay that had also been conceded before the election was also restored.
Knox said firefighters had not had a pay increase in six years. In addition, he said, they all worked tirelessly to help pass the special tax measure.
Buhler, contacted earlier this week, said he didn’t think the pay increases or the holiday pay were out of line or exorbitant.
“When you’re talking about $850,000 (revenue from the tax measure), it’s de minimis.”
According to Buhler and the report, it was not the amount of the raises — which he said were “normal” — but the district’s lack of public transparency during that period that were the issue.
“(Former) Chief Fike mentioned that during the campaign for the special tax measure, he had responded to more than 700 emails raising questions about the measure,” the report says. “However, when the committee requested copies of Fike’s emails, we were informed the files were lost.”
The report recommends backup copies of emails be maintained, as well as minutes of closed sessions.
“They need to review their data policies,” Buhler said. “These are housekeeping issues.”
On the budget for the special tax measure, Buhler, a former Consolidated board member and a veteran in the banking industry, said the committee is satisfied that the district is using the tax money “as it was supposed to be used” to maintain daily fire district operations and emergency response.
“They need to focus more on blocking and tackling of financial planning,” Buhler said.
He said that current interim financial officer Jeff Van Groningen had begun doing financial projections — a good idea, Buhler said. Van Groningen’s projections show a loss of $81,525 in fiscal year 2013-14 and an accumulated loss of $862,528 over the next six years.
“The board needs to take a hard look at their structure,” Buhler said. “Unless they can find a way to increase revenues, they are going to have to make some hard choices on the expense side.”
Van Groningen said this week the projections were “very conservative” in that they didn’t factor in any current cost-saving measures the district is taking and that they projected tax revenues as remaining flat.
The district last Thursday approved the purchase of an automated payroll system that fire district personnel can use themselves.
The system will cost $16,728 for a one-time setup, and $700 per month maintenance.
Knox said the new system, recommended by former Interim Fire Chief Jerry Johnson, should eventually result in costs savings in the wake of the retirement in April of Helen Henthorn, the district’s finance manager, who was working on a two-thirds time basis, Knox said.
The district may also realize some savings by potentially sharing the cost of hiring a new chief with other area fire districts. Fire agencies in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Penn Valley will meet April 9 with Consolidated officials to discuss the hiring of a joint chief. The new efforts at strengthening management come months after a Nevada County grand jury report blasted the district for its management during 2012-13, saying it was “dysfunctional and wracked by discord.”
The district’s union firefighters, who have been working under an MOU that expired in December 2012, are voting this week on a new contract.
Knox said the district board will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m., Monday, April 7, at Station 84 on Coyote Street in Nevada City to announce the results of the vote. The firefighters’ union shop steward said that no matter what the vote is, negotiations will be ongoing since the current proposal would only cover the union through July 1.
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
This story was updated on Friday, March 28, 2014, to clarify the date of the special meeting and the title for Helen Henthorn.
“The only way that (side agreement) could have been done is by a public vote taken at a public meeting.”
Board Chair Warren Knox
Nevada County Consolidated Fire District