Fire officials weigh in on Nevada County services |

Fire officials weigh in on Nevada County services

Three of the major firefighting agencies in western Nevada County either are currently or imminently in need of a new chief.

Grass Valley Fire Department and Nevada County Consolidated Fire District have recently appointed interim fire chiefs to fill the positions temporarily, while the Penn Valley Fire District’s Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats has announced he will retire in the summer of 2014.

Clayton Thomas, the spokesman for the Local 3800 Union that represents professional firefighters from Consolidated Fire, Penn Valley Fire and the Higgins Fire Protection District, believes the leadership void presents a unique opportunity for fire districts to begin looking at either outright consolidation or service-sharing agreements aimed at reducing overhead and providing more cost-effective services to constituents.

“If you can get the same level of service or even better for the same money, I think you have to look at it,” Thomas said, indicating that the firefighters as a group are interested in helping to create and implement forward-thinking solutions that would help ensure more boots are on the ground.

Warren Knox, the chairman of the Consolidated Fire board of directors, received support from the other six members of the board during the last board of directors’ meeting to begin discussing the possibility of collaboration with several of the fire districts.

The Consolidated Fire directors cautioned that the process would be extensive, as there are many details to be ironed out. Currently, each separate fire district levies property taxes at a different rate, pays its personnel at varying levels and offers assorted mixes of benefit packages.

If and how those variable get hammered out will be part of the discussion.

Nevada City Mayor Sally Harris said she is willing to listen to Knox when it comes to an increased sharing of services and costs between entities.

“I think the only reason for us to move forward is if we can accomplish one of two things for the city: either we provide better service for the same amount of money or we get the same level of service and save money,” Harris said.

Kurt Grundel, chairman of Penn Valley, has indicated an openness to explore potential cost savings but said during an October interview that many of the financial differences between districts present a significant impediment to cinching a large deal.

North San Juan Fire District and the Rough and Ready Fire Department are volunteer fire departments that live off grants, Grundel said.

“Financially speaking, I don’t see it happening for at least a decade,” Grundel said.

Thomas said the districts don’t need outright consolidation, as the Orange County Fire Authority in Southern California provides a model for how separate agencies can retain a certain degree of autonomy while collaborating to achieve significant cost savings.

The OCFA incorporates 23 cities and all of the unincorporated areas of the county, representing 1.6 million residents and 71 fire stations.

Harris said if officials indicate they are amenable to increased sharing of services, they will look to other organizations in the state for an appropriate model that could be scaled to serve western Nevada County.

Director Keith Grueneberg, who has been active in consolidations in the past and has been privy to negotiations involving Consolidated Fire, said it will take quite a bit of rigor to cinch a large agreement.

“It’s going to take a lot of whiskey to close that deal,” Grueneberg joked.

Consolidated Fire directors agreed they will still need to hunt for a new fire chief while entering into talks with surrounding districts.

The town of Washington has a small volunteer fire department subsumed underneath their independent water agency.

The Peardale-Chicago Park Fire Protection District, Ophir Hill Fire Protection District, North San Juan Fire and Rough and Ready Fire are all a mix of volunteer and paid firefighers and/or administrators. Penn Valley Fire, Consolidated Fire and Higgins Fire Protection District all have paid staff, although they make use, to varying degrees, of interns, volunteers or paid-call employees.

Consolidated is the largest of the districts in western Nevada County with about 42 firefighting employees on the rolls. Penn Valley has closer to 15 and Higgins is smaller than that.

Higgins saw the number of its paid staff cut dramatically in June 2013 due to the budget constraints that have imperiled firefighting services throughout western Nevada County and the rest of California.

Higgins has sought two separate tax measures to help bolster the pay roll, to no avail.

The cutbacks enacted last June by Higgins Fire resulted in a reduction of the number of staff available per day (from six to four firefighters) to keep service running around the clock seven days a week. The reduction has also meant station closures. Knox has repeatedly acknowledged that taxpayers are unlikely to approve further tax measures for Consolidated Fire in the current economic climate.

North San Juan Fire has initiated the process to begin exploring a tax measure within recent months, seeking to bolster the district’s finances and help with firefighter retention.

Knox vowed he would explore consolidation or service sharing with every fire district or department in Nevada County.

“Why not?” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email or call 530-477-4239.

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