Keri Brenner

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May 13, 2014
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4 Nevada County jurisdictions show momentum on hiring single fire chief

Possible cost savings emerged as the main issue Monday in a public forum on sharing fire services in four Nevada County jurisdictions.

“There are two scenarios,” said Nevada City Mayor Sally Harris. “Do we save money and provide the same level of services, or do up the services and keep the money the same?

“I’m sure for all the council members here, that the money part is so important to our stewardship of the community,” Harris said.

Harris was one of about 50 elected officials, firefighters and members of the public at the event at Sierra College.

At issue was whether elected officials and firefighters from Nevada City, Grass Valley, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and Penn Valley Fire Protection District are willing to form a “technical committee” to look at possible cost-sharing scenarios for hiring one fire chief to lead all four jurisdictions.

“If not now, I’m not sure when,” said Penn Valley Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats, referring to the “perfect storm” of having acting chiefs in three of the four jurisdictions, and Vander Plaats retiring at the end of June.

Most of those who spoke at Monday’s meeting were in favor of moving forward – but they didn’t agree on how fast a new shared single chief could be put in place.

Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board member Mark Bass said he wanted the process done in six months.

“I want to know if Penn Valley is in or not,” Bass said. “I don’t think we have a year – we need a unified voice and a unified chief and it needs to get fasttracked in six months.”

Harris said she was in favor of moving forward to sharing services, but not in revisiting ground covered before in past consolidation talks.

“I’ve been involved with this for five years, and with hundreds of hours of discussion,” she said. “We need to have a direction so we don’t have the roadblocks” that occurred before, she said.

Moderator Hank Weston, a Nevada County Supervisor and former local fire official, recommended that the “technical committee” work on the cost-sharing details, and then present a plan to a “working group” for the next step. The “working group” would consist of two members from each group of elected officials.

“We need to know which agencies want to move forward,” said Grass Valley City Manager Bob Richardson.

Grass Valley City Councilwoman Lisa Swarthout agreed with Harris.

“We’ve been here before, but it didn’t work out,”she said. “Now, I think we owe it to our community to at least move forward and not get bogged down in bureaucracy.”

Swarthout said it was “not just about saving money,” she said. “Our job is to provide the best possible service at the best price.”

Penn Valley Fire Protection District board member David Farrell, responding to Bass, said it was clear that Penn Valley was interested in participating.

“We are showing good intention by appointing an interim chief (to replace Vander Plaats).

“We’re definitely interested but we want to see the devil in the details,” he said.

It was not clear Monday how much money would be saved if the four jurisdictions were able to share one chief, and one set of supporting administrative staff members. The four fire agencies have about $400,000 combined to pay a permanent fire chief – so much of that money would be saved through only paying for one person. Other cost savings could be realized by not filling vacancies in other areas.

Grass Valley Acting Fire Chief Mark Buttron said the various firefighters from the different agencies already worked together seamlessly so that Nevada County fire operations – or “boots on the ground” – were already shared. It was the administrative end that needed to be refined,

“It’s a good time to do this now,” said Nevada City Acting Fire Chief Sam Goodspeed. “Before, it was the right time, with the wrong people, or the wrong time with the right people. “Now we have the right people and the right time,” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

“We’ve been here before, but it didn’t work out. Now, I think we owe it to our community to at least move forward and not get bogged down in bureaucracy.”
Grass Valley City Councilwoman Lisa Swarthout

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The Union Updated Oct 8, 2014 08:50PM Published May 15, 2014 02:31PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.