Jeff Sheldon: Poor practices with fire taxes, personnel management
I received the Aug. 6 edition of The Union and read a front page article, and then inside, an editorial by Bruce Jones, chairman of the Higgins Fire Protection Board of Directors, each advising us, the taxpayers, why we needed to vote for Article V — otherwise the Higgins Fire District is going to punish us by closing one of our fire stations.
Then, in today’s mail I received a post card, also from Jones, repeating the same threats and then he has the audacity to insinuate that the cost of the mailer and the costs of the “election” for Measure V did not cost us, the taxpayers, anything, as the funds came from the state and federal governments. Mr. Jones, where do you think the state and federal governments get their money?
So what Jones is attempting to indicate is that Higgins Fire District does not have enough money to continue to provide the necessary fire services and therefore, needs a tax increase. Hog wash! Here are three solutions that Jones and other county fire managers might wish to consider.
Nevada County is made up of about 12 or 13 separate fire districts, fiefdoms, if you will. Each has its own managers, administrative staff, unions, command staff, fire fighters, fire stations, fire equipment, training requirements, training facilities and mutual aide mandates. That is right — 12 or 13 different districts, all duplicitous in their needs and requirements costing the taxpayers tons of extra money. These fiefdoms should all be “consolidated” into one county fire department. This would do away with substantial redundant overhead costs, making a more cost and functionally effective county wide fire agency.
But here is the problem — none of the fiefdom managers or command officers wish to lose their jobs or risk being demoted, which is what consolidation would bring. Do you think the big city has individual fire departments for each little town, i.e., San Fernando Valley Fire District, Hollywood Fire District, Watts Fire District, all with duplicitous needs? Of course not, they have the LAFD and the LA County Fire, each a thousand times bigger than Nevada County. But here is another problem, it would take someone at the county level to demand consolidation and we do not have any leadership at that level to do so. This has been a long time problem in Nevada County and is costing us, the taxpayers, dearly.
Okay, second solution. When I moved to Nevada County, if not all, then nearly all of the county fire districts were primarily volunteer districts. Meaning, and for instance, 49er Fire District had approximately 30 members, about five of the 30 were paid firefighters, who ran the daily needs of the district and the rest were volunteers (non or minimally paid). After a while the volunteers were pushed out, as the paid people wanted more money and more paid positions. Hence, more costs to the taxpayers. Jones will tell you, that he cannot recruit enough volunteers because of the stringent training requirements and the time commitments. That is nonsense! There are volunteer fire districts all over the state, some in Nevada County, and they are just as professional as paid districts, possibly even more so, as they do it out of commitment.
Third solution. Reduce the pay scale for a firefighter, right on up though the command staff. Oh, you say they will quit, well, I guarantee that for every firefighter who quits, you will have 40 standing in line for the position. Firefighting is a sought-after job with excellent benefits and retirement.
So there are three solutions to your staffing problem Mr. Jones. I might ask why have you not tried them out before asking for a tax increase. The obvious answer being that none of the solutions would be popular with your district personnel. Well, yearly tax increases are not popular with the taxpayers.
And the real shame is that our county leaders have allowed this fire district drama to continue for so long. A singularly managed Nevada County Fire Department would be a major step out of the dark ages for our county, it, if done properly, would save the taxpayers money and provide a much more effective fire service.
Nothing in this piece is meant to disparage the hard working firefighters in Nevada County; it is only meant to point out poor county tax and personnel management practices. Semper Fi.
Jeff Sheldon lives in southern Nevada County.
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