Issues re: fire agency merger
January 13, 2014
I believe that a single fire protection and emergency medical service agency could provide a more effective and efficient service to western Nevada County than can the several agencies now in existence.
However, I would argue that in contrast to the position presented in the Jan. 8 article in The Union — that "the only blockage" to achieving improved fire and emergency medical service in western Nevada County is overcoming "those with vested interest in the status quo" — there are difficult issues to be addressed by serious people, such as:
1. New merged western Nevada County fire agency service types and levels:
Service levels and types provided by the agencies listed in the article as being "interested in consolidation" vary significantly.
Some "interested agencies" depend primarily on volunteers for emergency response. One of their members must respond from their homes or workplaces to their station to get the engine before responding to emergencies, thereby slowing response times.
The number of personnel trained to CalOSHA required levels in order to enter burning buildings varies significantly between "interested agencies."
Only one of the "interested agencies" provides paramedic and ambulance service.
2. New merged western Nevada County fire agency funding:
Supervisor Hank Weston recently indicated that fees/taxes currently collected from property owners for the various "interested agencies" may vary by hundreds of dollars.
The fees/taxes required to pay for a merged western Nevada County fire agency to provide superior service now afforded western Nevada County would be greater for many, if not most, citizens of "interested agencies."
My conversations with members of "the public" indicate their motivation for a single western Nevada County fire district stems from their belief that such a merger would result in better service and lower costs.
Recent elections indicate a difference in the willingness of taxpayers from different districts to provide funding beyond current levels.
3. Personnel compensation solution for a new merged western Nevada County fire agency:
Personnel compensation packages vary significantly between the "interested agencies."
The higher compensated agencies' personnel would no doubt resist lowering their compensation to an "average of the current packages."
Operating an agency with personnel receiving different compensation for the same work seems difficult.
4. Governance for a new merged western Nevada County fire agency:
Currently, the boards are elected from the geographic areas the agencies protect or perhaps, in the case of "dependent districts," are appointed by the board of supervisors.
Assuming the new western Nevada County fire agency would be independent of county governance, how would members of the governing board be elected?
5. Nevada City and Grass Valley's participation in a new western Nevada County fire agency:
The Jan. 8 article does not mention either city. It appears that the tax base would be largely residential if they were not included.
Residential fees/taxes to support the new western Nevada County fire agency would be lowered with the inclusion of the commercial tax base of those cities.
The Jan. 8 article describes an option to actual merging of districts by creating a day-to-day business management organization laid on top of the current fire districts with "one chief, one business office and one board that oversees the day-to-day business of the fire districts." As I understand it, each of the current fire districts would retain their boards but rather than a fire chief, they would function with an operations chief, leaving all business functions to the new business management district.
This is an interesting, and in my experience, a unique proposition. Like the merging of the current fire districts into an integrated western Nevada County fire agency as I discuss above, there are real and difficult issues to be resolved with this proposal, such as: the roles of Grass Valley and Nevada City in the new business management district; the election/appointment of the governing board of the new business management district; the funding source(s) for this "day-to-day fire business district; and the functioning relationships of the "business chief" with "district operational chiefs" and the "business district board with "operational boards."
I believe all the issues I list can be resolved, but grandstanding individuals and flashy headlines will not achieve a more efficient and effective western Nevada County fire service. I believe it will take the leadership of the board of supervisors, support from the local news media (press and radio) and the cooperation of the various boards and chief officers in order to gain the approval of the relevant taxpayers.
Bill Neville is a member of the Penn Valley Fire Protection District board of directors.