Back to the future with Nevada County Consolidated Fire District
The resignation of its fire chief after a mere three months on the job certainly grabbed the headlines this week, but the bigger story appears to be still ahead for Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s board of directors.
Just more than two years since voters approved a special tax measure to gap a $500,000 budget deficit and a projected $870,000 deficit for the following fiscal year of 2011-12, it appears Consolidated Fire’s budget is essentially back to square one.
Moments after announcing his resignation, Chief Adolf Zubia and interim Finance Manager Jeff Van Groningen outlined the outlook of the district’s finances for board members Tuesday. Clearly, the forecast they shared was anything but bright and sunny — from an $81,500 deficit projected for 2013-14 to more than $800,000 in 2018-19.
“What we should take away from the projection is that we have big decisions to make in the future,” board treasurer Mark Bass said.
But those decisions shouldn’t be considered “new business” on Consolidated’s agenda, considering the board’s recent history, which in June the Nevada County civil grand jury deemed to be “woefully short in (its) roles and responsibilities.”
Of course, board members painted a different picture in their response to the grand jury’s investigation and report, noting “inadvertent mistakes” and somewhat of a perfect storm that led to a perception of a poorly managed fire district.
Yet with each passing day, that perception is looking more like the reality.
The board’s response went so far as to accuse the grand jury of doing a “grave disservice” and “creating unnecessary doubt in the minds of the community” in regard to the fire district’s ability to administer essential emergency services to the community.
“This district has not faltered in its mission,” the response stated, “because of the quality of … firefighters who are still delivering incredible emergency service to our constituents, saving lives, delivering babies, extinguishing wildfires with the confidence of excellent training and well-seasoned experience.”
Sure, but for how much longer?
Even its own chairman has continually acknowledged the fire district cannot sustain its operations with a business-as-usual approach — and he’s been saying that before, during and after the special tax measure was approved.
“We fully expect that even with the requested revenue increase, the economy over the next few years will continue to challenge our management’s ability to maintain quality emergency services in Nevada County,” Consolidated Chairman Warren Knox wrote in an op-ed published on these pages in January 2012. “But without this increase, there is no doubt that very significant cuts in personnel will have to be implemented immediately. Such cuts would significantly increase response time. In an ‘extremely high fire danger area,’ like Nevada County, minutes can make the difference between a minor house fire and a raging wildland fire.
“For less than a cup of coffee a week,” he continued, “voters can secure the existing, quality emergency response service they desire and deserve.”
At the time, that apparently sounded like a good deal to voters who approved the special tax, which amounted to an increase of $52 per district household. Although even with the sales pitch, some of those voters were apprehensive to offer approval.
“Fire protection is really important — but are they spending taxpayers’ money wisely?” Banner Mountain property owner Dave Agran asked at the time. “How responsibly are they managing their budget? What are they doing to cut their costs?”
Those two questions remain as pertinent to today’s discussion, as they were in 2012. The grand jury found board members failed to follow open meeting laws and lacked professionalism, civility, decorum and respect toward some employees. And, the report stated, the board showed a “lack of fiduciary responsibility by reinstating all Local 3800 members’ merit increases … retroactive to July 1, 2012” and in determining “all Local 3800 employees shall receive merit and other wage and salary increases …” just six months after the special tax had been approved.
“Can we really afford a $100,000 salary on a chief that administers a district with only 12 people?” Knox said Thursday. “There are places we can look collectively to save money.”
Perhaps Knox and his fellow board members should have asked that question before hiring a consultant at a price of $28,000 to prepare a list of chief candidates — which included Zubia — as well as handing back concessions to firefighters, which the district touted as an example of cutting costs in the campaign to gain approval of the special tax.
It’s likely that despite approving the special tax two years ago, the community expected Consolidated board members to continue seeking out ways to save money. Yet the board acknowledged earlier this year that it had failed to fulfill its oversight obligations in expending the new revenue, as it failed to organize a citizens oversight committee until a citizen raised the issue more than one year after the tax was approved.
We contend that the Consolidated Fire District’s board needs more oversight well beyond the expenditure of those funds.
It’s time for real leadership to emerge either from within the board, from other local elected officials or from the public at large to ensure this community will continue to have the fire protection it deserves and for which it has paid.
“We have to do some deep soul searching,” Knox said Thursday, “about how we operate in the future in order to be solvent.”
It’s telling that such as statement is as relevant today as it was more than two years ago.
Our View represents the opinions of The Union editorial board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff, as well as informed members of the community.
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The California State Association of Counties, the voice of California’s 58 counties, would like to thank Nevada County Supervisor Heidi Hall for her strong leadership in supporting broadband for all in the state budget.