Less than eight months after the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District pleaded with voters to pass a tax measure to keep vital services, the board agreed to restore salary step increases and other benefits to its firefighters.
During the November meeting of the seven-member district board, the directors in attendance voted 4 to 1 (with John Leonard dissenting) to authorize an agreement between the district and classified employees to restore concessions made in July 2011. Directors Mark Bass and David Hanson were not in attendance.
Rank and file firefighters will once again be eligible for step salary increases and holiday pay, along with other health insurance benefits, as a result of the enacted agreement.
The merit-based salary bumps are retroactive to July and will have about a $20,000 impact on this year’s budget, said Division Chief David Ray.
The vote comes only eight months after the fire district asked the public to approve a tax measure that added a $52 annual fee to district residents’ tax bill to salvage the district from pressing financial problems. The public approved the tax measure with about 68.5 percent of residents saying “Yes.”
In March, when the district was working to have the tax measure passed by residents, former Chief Tim Fike, who recently parted ways with the district after engaging in a physical confrontation with an employee, said that without the added financial boost, the department would have to lay off personnel and close two fire stations.
Leonard, who was voted off the board earlier this November, said the district is in the same financial straits that it was in March, which is why he voted against awarding Local 3800 the concessions during the November meeting.
“There is not one single extra penny,” he said. “There is barely any money for gasoline and no money for new equipment, and if we keep awarding salary increases, this district is going to go broke.”
Linda Chaplin, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board of directors and who is a regular attendee of the meetings, said Local 3800 wields too much influence in the fire district.
“Local 3800 is basically in charge of Nevada County Consolidated,” she said.
Leonard agreed with Chaplin, saying the union is behaving inappropriately and is doing more to harm itself in the long run.
“It keeps getting worse and worse,” he said.
Director Keith Grueneberg said the step increases, which were originally negotiated away by Local 3800 Union during intense negotiation sessions in 2011, were budgeted in the current fiscal year and are critical for the morale of the district.
“The people in this district are very competent,” Grueneberg said. “I’m very impressed with the people here. If they perform satisfactorily, they deserve a step raise.”
Negotiations in 2011 between Local 3800 and Fike led to a fractured and acrimonious atmosphere in the district that eventually spilled over into the altercation that subsequently led to Fike being ousted from his post.
Tensions remain high, as Grueneberg got into a public dispute with board secretary Darlene Bennett over a point of procedure during the Nov. 15 meeting of the fire board of directors.
Grueneberg was initially upset because the board had approved the agreement between the district and Local 3800 over step increases during a September meeting, but the agreement had yet to be implemented due to procedural technicalities.
Grueneberg called the supposed need to craft a resolution “nonsense” and “ridiculous,” saying staff should have implemented the policy the board approved two months earlier.
Later in the meeting, Grueneberg and Bennett clashed again when Grueneberg invited the two individuals who had just been elected to the board of directors in the November general election into a closed session meeting to discuss continued negotiations with the labor union.
Bennett said that the two men had yet to be sworn in as official members of the board, and as such, it would violate the Ralph Brown Act to include them in closed session.
Jim Curtis, the legal counsel for Consolidated Fire, was not in attendance at the meeting. Chief David Ray said Curtis has a scheduling conflict that does not allow him to attend the fire board meetings.
There were many points of legal contention that came up throughout the meeting, besides the closed session question and whether or not the board needed a motion or resolution to approve the agreement between the union and the district.
Curtis is paid $180 per hour, and his contract stipulates his hours will not exceed 960 hours in a given year, Ray said. Curtis could earn $172,800 annually from the district without attending a single meeting.
Ray said Chaplin’s characterization of the district as being run by Local 3800 is “overstating it.”
“They have a strong voice, there’s no doubt, but it depends on the issue,” he said.
Ray said the district is starting to feel beleaguered under the constant strain of controversy but is also looking forward to the future and remains committed to providing quality service.
“Relating to the last six months, I’d say the morale in the department has been medium to low,” Ray said. “The last six months have been pretty treacherous. There has been a lot of things going on.”
Nonetheless, Ray said he is proud of the professionalism his firefighters display when they are out in the field.
“(The turmoil) has not affected our ability to provide emergency services to this community,” he said. “These guys are professionals and they do a great job when the bell rings.”
Ray believes morale will improve significantly when a new chief is hired and a direction is laid out for the future of the district.
“This district needs a permanent leader,” he said.
Ray, who has been with the district for many years, said he is more interested in the operational side of firefighting and does not possess the interest in managing a fire district as the long-term chief.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.