Fire Safe Council gets $5M grant: State grant helps Fire Safe Council initiate new project, balance budget
A state grant has allowed the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County to begin a new wildfire prevention project, even as it seeks to allay concerns by county officials over the nonprofit’s accounting procedures.
In an Aug. 26 Board of Directors meeting, Executive Director Jamie Jones announced that the council had been selected as one of 27 statewide to be a recipient of Cal Fire’s Forest Health Grant Awards. The grant is for $4.967 million. The Forest Health program, which Cal Fire initiated earlier this year, awarded a total of $160 million in grants between the 27 different entities to help local officials with forest maintenance and conservation.
The $4.9 million grant was awarded to the Fire Safe Council to fund a specific fuel reduction and prescribed burn project that will cover 1,800 acres in western Nevada County, the council said in a press release. The council will undertake the project — officially called “Western Nevada County Forest Health Objectives“ — in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the county’s Firewise Communities.
The council is allocating 12% of the grant to its own administrative budget, while the rest of the funds will go toward the Forest Health project, Jones said.
The council said that the new project is intended to further the larger scale goal of reducing fire hazards within the Western Nevada County Community Defense Zone, an approximately 24,000-acre region of wildland-urban interface considered at high risk for wildfire due to the dense foliage and vegetation present in this area. Additionally, the council and the Forest Service hope the Forest Health project strengthens ecosystems in heavily forested areas.
“Restoring forest land creates a healthier ecosystem for native species of plants and animals, improves biodiversity, reduces strain on the watershed, and provides better protection from wildfire to communities by reducing the intensity of fire that may pass through that forest land,” the press release states. “Restoring this much forest land to a healthier state takes a major effort with partners that excel at collaboration.”
IMPACT ON BUDGET
With 12% of the $4.9 million award (approximately $590,000) going directly to the council’s budget, the Cal Fire grant is expected to provide a healthy boost to the nonprofit’s bottom line, after questions were raised earlier this year regarding the council’s financial viability.
In a letter addressed to the the council’s Board of Directors earlier this year, Roby Pracht, a former accountant for the organization, claimed that the council’s debts were vastly exceeding its revenues, due primarily to what the accountant described as the organization’s systematic “neglect of proper nonprofit accounting” procedures.
While Jones and Board of Directors chairman Don Thane have denied the ex-accountant’s claims of budgetary mismanagement, the directors said in their Aug. 26 meeting that the council’s financial reports as of March 2021 indicated a negative cashflow of $172,000.
However, with the influx of revenue from the Forest Health grant, Jones announced in the meeting that the council’s bottom line is now in a much more favorable position than before. The nonprofit’s financial statements as of August appear to show that revenues now exceed liabilities by approximately $181,000.
COUNTY SUSPENDING FUNDING
Jones and the other directors previously said that the nonprofit still has work to do in terms of fixing a number of outstanding issues with its accounting procedures, per the recommendations of a third-party auditor.
That audit — which the council itself requested to address both the allegations of of Pracht’s letter as well as a formal inquiry by the county into the allegations — recommended that the council ensure that pay increases and benefits received by Jones are properly processed in accordance with IRS payroll guidelines. The auditor also suggested that the council correct various other errors, including the misreporting of a federal loan, which the council had incorrectly documented as revenue instead of debt. Council directors unanimously voted to implement the auditor’s recommendations at the organization’s last meeting.
The county, in a letter sent to the council on Aug. 23, announced that it would not enter into any new contracts with the nonprofit until it was confident that all of the accounting issues — including the allegations made in Pracht’s letter — had been addressed.
Stephen Monaghan, the county’s chief information officer, said that $23,000 to 30,000 in tax-free general purpose funding that the county normally provides to the council is currently being withheld, along with certain federal and state mitigation grants that the council normally receives through the county.
“The county has applied for various FEMA and state Cal Fire mitigation grants,” Monaghan said in a statement. “Some of these grants are starting to be awarded. FSC is a strategic and major partner with the county to deliver the projects. These new funds and thus new projects are on hold right now.”
In addition to the suspension of this funding from the county, some of the council’s programs — such as a 100-acre defensible space project that the nonprofit was going to implement around the homes of 45 county residents — have been temporarily put on hold until the county sees the Board of Directors address the accounting issues, Monaghan said.
However, he emphasized that the majority of programs that the council conducts with the county, such as its green waste disposal service and its chipping programs, are not likely to be impacted.
Monaghan expressed confidence that the council will resolve all of the accounting issues in a matter of weeks, which would allow the county to unfreeze the withheld funding and resume its normal level of partnership with the nonprofit.
“We need to get this issue behind us so we can get to work on these important projects,” he said. “FSC is a major and strategic county partner with addressing our wildfire threats and community education on it. We look forward to quickly resolving this issue and putting our grant funds to work for the community together.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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The Caldor Fire burned hottest in decimated communities, and the landscape has dramatically changed on the main highway leading to South Lake Tahoe