Consolidated fire district grilled by independent committee
An independent committee of Nevada County Consolidated Fire District constituents spent two hours grilling officials associated with the embattled fire district regarding how money derived from a recent tax measure was spent and whether it aligned with public promises.
The Citizens Oversight Committee, chaired by Fred Buhler — who once sat on the Consolidated Fire board of directors — asked questions to current board member Mark Bass, former Division Chief David Ray and former board member Bob Rhodes that specifically related to the passage of a tax measure in March 2012.
The measure, which narrowly passed with the required supermajority (66.7 percent), provided Consolidated Fire with an infusion of approximately $850,000 annually, which officials claimed at the time was needed to sustain basic operations, prevent station closures and avert significant cuts in staff.
In November 2012, about eight months after the tax measure passed, the board passed a measure 4-1 that restored step increases and holiday stipends. That move cost the district about $60,000, according to recently released figures — about 7 percent of the money it would generate through the tax measure.
Buhler did acknowledge that Chief Tim Fike, who led Consolidated Fire at the time of the tax measure passage, told the public that none of the $850,000 would go to firefighter salaries.
However, he said it would be difficult not to use a portion of the money toward salaries, given that salaries and benefits comprise about 75 percent of the agency’s $5 million annual budget.
Bass and Rhodes both said the decision to restore merit increases was a question of equity and fairness, as some firefighters with the same seniority were denied increases because their hire dates came later in the year.
“The position of the board with the merit increase is that it was something we needed to fix,” Bass said, with Rhodes asserting it was a noncontroversial item.
During the November 2012 meeting, the vote was 4 to 1 to restore increases, with only John Leonard dissenting. Leonard is no longer on the board.
“There is not one single extra penny,” Leonard said at the time. “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.”
It was further revealed that the district has an agreement with the Local 3800 Union, which represents firefighters, to revisit the concessions if the tax measure was passed. The agreement was in place in December 2011, according to documents obtained by the oversight committee.
Ray said the three objectives of the tax measure were to keep stations 86 and 89 open, providing enough funding for overtime to not have stations closed and to maintain a fund for equipment maintenance and purchases.
Buhler said salaries are 70 percent of keeping stations open.
Neither Bass or Rhodes said they recalled when the approximately $40,000 in holiday stipends were restored.
“I’m not sure how it got thrown back into this mix,” Bass said.
Another point of interest for the oversight committee centered on the ostensible 7 percent cut in firefighter’s salaries that was advertised by Fike and other district officials leading up to the tax measure vote.
The 7 percent was not a cut in baseline salaries, but instead was a combination of a lack of step increases and cuts to the overtime budget, Rhodes said.
Andrew Wilkinson, an oversight committee member, said if the 7 percent reductions were truly enacted, it would have amounted to $170,000.
“I think it falls a long way short of what was represented to the public,” Wilkinson said.
“When you look at the document and you state what you are going to use the money for, it doesn’t say ‘To put the 7 percent back.’”
Rhodes said he could understand how it would seem misleading, but didn’t think it was deliberate on the part of the district.
Bass said that 5 percent of the 7 percent represented as pay cuts to firefighter salaries were actually cuts in overtime.
Ray said firefighters often bank on overtime as part of their regular salary.
“It’s safe to say that that was one of the most controversial hours around,” Rhodes said, adding that the expectation of overtime is akin to employees counting on annual bonuses as part of their salary.
Buhler said that the perception among the voting public was that firefighters had contributed significant cuts toward solving the agency’s fiscal woes and that the tax measure vote was asking them to do their part.
“I don’t know if you’ll get a clear understanding among the general population,” Rhodes said.
“I think the district did a tremendous job of trying to make people aware, to communicate. My sense was never that things were being untruthful. My sense is that they were trying to paint a clear picture and not oversell.
“I can understand and appreciate that not everybody in the general public feels that way, but I honestly don’t think the general public has a clue about the fire service,” Rhodes concluded.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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