Bill Neville: Grand jury report ignores factors in Higgins Fire District financial problems
As a retired fire chief officer, fire district director, fire service educator and 25-year fire service consultant, I find myself both engrossed and disappointed by the Nevada County Grand Jury Report on the Higgins Fire District financial problems.
The report leaves no doubt that the citizens of that district face severe fire and emergency medical service issues. But, in my mind, the report ignores many factors contributing to the district problems.
While the citizen volunteers who serve without compensation on the district’s board of directors are severely chastised by the grand jury’s report, the district’s chief executive officer’s lack of involvement in addressing the identified issues seems largely disregarded. According to the report, the district had duly appointed, as the district fire chief and chief executive officer, a Cal Fire chief officer and in accordance with the “special relationship” between Cal Fire and the Higgins District made him “responsible for the functions of the District.”
As a fire service consultant for the last 25 years, I can unequivocally state that I would have expected the district’s chief executive officer to lead the district’s efforts on gaining passage of the ballot measures to increase District revenue. I don’t, however, find anything in the report indicating significant efforts in this regard by the Cal Fire chief officer duly appointed as the district’s chief executive officer, and responsible for the functions of the district.
The report lists as factors contributing to failure of the Higgins Board’s tax increase ballot measures: “lack of sufficient information given to the public, and public confusion as to the purpose of the California Fire Prevention State Responsibility Area fee (SRA fee).” Apparently, certain parties opposed to the district’s tax increase ballot measure, claimed that no additional district funds were required because the new California Fire Prevention State Responsibility Area fee would provide all necessary funding.
Given that the SRA fee was, in fact, in support of a Cal Fire wildfire prevention program (no funds designated for emergency fire or emergency medical response), it seems obvious to me that the Cal Fire chief officer, as the fire district’s chief executive officer should have been the ideal party to educate the public on the true nature of the SRA Fee. I find nothing in the report indicating efforts, or lack thereof by that officer to clarify the SRA fee for district voters.
The grand jury further charges that the board alone failed to engage the local community and maintain an appropriate website. There is no doubt in my mind that these matters are more appropriately the role of the professional chief executive officer than the volunteer, part-time, board of directors who, in my experience, typically deal with broad policy issues rather than these kinds of administrative functions.
Another shortcoming attributed solely to the district board by the grand jury was the poor performance of the consultant hired to assist in gaining public support for the tax increase ballot measure. Again, in my experience, such consulting service is typically administered by career management, in this case, the district chief executive officer.
The report states, “The Amador Contract is a vital element in the operations of the Higgins District.” Yet the report does not examine Cal Fire’s demand for a 700 percent fee increase to continue that contract with Higgins. Apparently, “Chief Officer and other support services have been provided to the District at no charge for over 35 years.” It would seem pertinent for the grand jury to have determined if this kind of “special relationship” has been provided to other fire districts and if so, their experience with that “relationship.”
The rationale driving the citizen’s group who made exaggerated, incorrect claims regarding district employee benefits on the ballot argument opposing the tax increase would also seem to have been relevant material for grand jury report examination.
Perhaps the answer to some of these omissions lies in the noteworthy limited scope of persons interviewed by the jury:
No representation from the other, fiscally viable, Nevada County fire districts.
No representation from LAFCo, the organization responsible by State law for reviewing proposals for changes in the organization of existing agencies.
It seems clear to me that the Higgins District Board of Directors has demonstrated shortcomings. However, several other significant factors were addressed only vaguely or not at all. The inequitable tenor of this report causes me to seriously question the credibility and viability of the Civil Grand Jury system, at least as practiced in Nevada County.
Bill Neville served as assistant chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, fire chief in Hayward, superintendent of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., director of the Penn Valley Fire Protection District, and as a fire service consultant for agencies from Massachusetts to Hawaii and Florida to Alaska.
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