Boardman: Consolidated Fire’s latest ‘big flip’ shouldn’t be a surprise
Observations from the center stripe: Snail’s pace edition
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Several elected and appointed officials were left dumb-founded a couple of weeks ago when the clown college that runs the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District decided out of the blue to hire a new fire chief.
Until that political pipe bomb was detonated, officials of Grass Valley and Nevada City were under the impression they were working with Consolidated representatives to form a joint fire department.
Just a week before the about face, all three parties “left the table feeling great, handshakes all around, looking wonderful” about a plan to hire a single chief for the three jurisdictions, said Nevada City Councilman Duane Strawser.
“They presented the idea from the beginning,” he told The Union. “It’s almost like, behind the scenes, they appointed someone in-house, which is what they wanted to do in the first place.”
Everybody joined hands Aug. 14 to announce the new department would be headquartered in Grass Valley and that things were moving so quickly, they could start recruiting a new chief by Oct. 1.
“I’m very comfortable that we have the right group to make it happen,” Strawser said then. “This should have been accomplished a long-time ago.” Grass Valley Mayor Dan Miller said, “We’ve thought about this for so long, I’m surprised it was this easy.”
Western Nevada County has eight small fire departments — many using volunteers and part-timers — to provide fire protection to one of the most heavily wooded residential areas in the state. Many of the departments face increased pension payments that strain budgets at a time residents resist increasing taxes.
One solution to the dilemma is the consolidation of firefighting resources, an idea that was endorsed by the county board of supervisors as far back as 1992, and that has been gaining traction the last couple of years.
Everybody assumed Consolidated was onboard with the idea after directors voted in February to sign a joint operating agreement with Grass Valley and Nevada City while committing itself to exploring “a shared senior administration,” board chair Warren Knox said then, adding the next step is to “find out who else is committed to the shared chief idea …”
Alas, Grass Valley and Nevada City didn’t take into account the dysfunctional board that runs Consolidated. Even Knox, who participated in the Aug. 14 love fest, said he was “as surprised as anybody else” when the board approved director Keith Grueneberg’s recommendation to appoint a chief and deputy chief.
Consolidated officials still haven’t offered a public explanation for the coup, but it apparently had to do with money and power. ”They (staff) was doing a deep-drill analysis on the financials,” Knox told The Union. “By the time I got the information…there was no time to share it with our partner agencies.”
None of this probably surprised Supervisor Hank Weston, a retired fired chief who was drafted in January to try to broker a deal between local fire agencies. He said then the impediments to combining forces “are the chiefs and board members. The chiefs don’t want to lose their positions, and the board members don’t want to lose their power.”
Since none of the three departments had permanent chiefs, the only remaining impediments were the board members. Consolidated’s board apparently doesn’t want to contribute 60 percent of the operating cost for the new department while Nevada City kicks in just 8 percent.
Concern about money is a real reversal for a fire district that has so mismanaged its affairs that it has projected a deficit ranging from $567,000 to $4 million (pick a number, any number) through 2018-19 despite voter approval of a tax increase that will generate an additional $850,000 a year in revenue.
Nobody knew Consolidated was in such dire financial shape until after voters passed the tax increase in March 2012. That’s because district officials were — shall we say — less than forthcoming about the department’s financial straits, a preview of how they’ve handled negotiations with Grass Valley and Nevada City.
In the run-up to the March 2012 vote on a tax increase, officials told the public none of the new revenue would go to firefighter salaries, stressing the need to keep two stations open around the clock while maintaining and purchasing new equipment.
District officials didn’t reveal an agreement made with the firefighters union five months before the vote to revisit previous concessions if the measure passed. Eight months after voters approved the tax hike, the board restored $60,000 in pay step increases and holiday stipends.
The same officials talked about a 7 percent pay cut taken by firefighters, their contribution in tough times. They didn’t bother to say the cut was in step increases and overtime, not baseline salaries.
None of this seemed to bother former director Bob Rhodes, who said the following last December at a meeting of the district oversight committee, apparently with a straight face:
“I think the district did a tremendous job of trying to make the 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.”
But wait, there was more: “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 fire service.”
No, the clueless people are the directors and people who voted them into office.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.
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