Nevada County Supervisors demand accountability from Consolidated Fire
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the $183.5 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year during Tuesday’s special meeting.
In the executive summary for the preliminary budget, County Executive Officer Rick Haffey stated the budget is essentially the same as it was in 2011-12 ($172.9 million), except for the passage of California Assembly Bill 109.
Public Safety Realignment, as it is informally known, shifted the responsibilities of housing low-level inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes from the state to county jurisdictions.
In 2012, the program increased the county’s budget by $12 million, and in 2013, the budget will be $14 million higher.
Taking away the increase in realignment costs, the county budget increased slightly.
“This is the first year in five years that the county’s budget has not dropped,” Haffey wrote. “In fact, factoring out the state’s realignment of responsibilities, the county of Nevada budget has truly declined over $20 million since 2008/2009 ($190.9 million).”
The county’s largest revenue source for the general fund and discretionary spending is property taxes, which are dependent on assessed property values.
While conceding the local real estate market is “finally beginning to show signs of life,” Haffey stated, “this has not yet resulted in an uptick of property tax revenues.”
County financial officials are predicting property taxes will remain flat.
The county currently employs the equivalent of 773 full-time positions, and that will also remain flat, according to the proposed budget. In 2008-09, the county employed an equivalent of 986 full-time positions.
Haffey stated that anticipated increases in pension costs mean “personnel cuts and use of reserves will be the only tools left to keep the budget balanced.”
The county has been able to keep the general fund balance above 2007 levels, despite dipping into reserves annually in order to maintain essential services, Haffey stated.
In 2007, the general fund balance as of June 30 was about $16 million. In 2011, the fund balance was about $21.5 million; it was $19.4 million in 2012 and is expected to be around $17 million in 2013 and $16.4 million in June 2014
On their way toward approving the $183 million 2013-14 fiscal year budget, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors directed staff to apply greater scrutiny to funds distributed to the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District.
Since 1996, Nevada County has collected a percentage of sales tax under Proposition 172, and distributes it to various public safety service agencies, such as the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, the Probation Department and various fire districts, including Consolidated Fire.
Supervisor Nate Beason said the county should require Consolidated Fire to honor a provision accompanying the distribution of funds that mandates fire officials submit an annual report regarding how it will use the money.
“In light of these issues that are going on at this very large fire district … I think we need to redouble our efforts to require the input from these folks on what they’re doing with this money,” Beason said.
“I have no problem at all with helping (the fire district) out if they need it, and I am going to vote for this resolution, but it’s time to shoot some sacred cows around here because it’s taxpayer money.”
Consolidated Fire was the subject of a blistering 23-page report released last Thursday that was compiled by the Nevada County grand jury, which accused the board of collectively failing in their fiduciary duty, violating the public trust and behaving secretively on its way to multiple infractions of open meeting laws.
The board of supervisors voted unanimously to approve distributing the approximately $6 million in Prop. 172 funds to the nearly 20 public safety-oriented agencies.
Consolidated Fire is slated to receive about $285,000.
The resolution authorizing the allocation states that each agency should provide a written summary “of how funds were utilized by the agency or department at the conclusion of each fiscal year.”
Beason said that precept had not been observed for the past five years.
While the board directed staff to require a report from all of the agencies receiving the allocation, Consolidated Fire was singled out.
“It’s really disappointing to see these public services so characterized by dysfunction, and I would hope that they get that together, because their job is to serve the community,” said Supervisor Terry Lamphier.
The grand jury report states, “(The) Board of Directors is dysfunctional and is wracked by discord, acrimony, back-biting and mistrust among board members.”
Along with a litany of malfeasance, the grand jury highlighted a culture of fiscal mismanagement at Consolidated Fire.
The grand jury questioned the credibility of a recent collective bargaining agreement due to the close personal relationship between certain board members and Consolidated Fire’s union leadership.
Lisa LaBarbera, former Human Resources Director at Consolidated Fire, is pursuing a recall of Director Keith Grueneberg, who she claims inappropriately restored concessions the firefighters had given away to help the cash-strapped fire district.
Last November, the board approved the restoration of salary increases and other benefits to firefighters less than eight months after pleading with voters to pass a tax measure to keep vital services.
Fred Buhler, a resident of the district and former member of the Consolidated Fire’s board, questioned whether the restoration of salaries was consistent with the intent of the tax measure that was passed last April, which added about $52 to residents’ annual property tax.
The grand jury also reported that the Memorandum of Understanding concerning salaries and benefits that was agreed upon in December 2011 expressly prohibited merit increases granted in 2013 from being retroactive to 2012.
At the same meeting where Buhler questioned the use of the $850,000 generated by the tax measure, it was revealed the board failed to establish an account to track the revenues and expenditures derived from the tax measure, a committee to provide public oversight relating to tax measure spending or an annual report detailing how funds were used.
The failure to institute the three key oversight measures were not mentioned in the grand jury report.
The report did state the board “repeatedly entered into financial agreements which are inadequate, incomplete, unwritten and lack protection for the (fire district).”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.
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