After years of laboring in virtual anonymity while quietly growing into one of the most respected and affluent fire agencies in the state, often without a single resident in attendance at meetings, the El Dorado Hills Fire Board has finally attracted an audience.
The new-found attention comes at a time when board members have their hands full. A nationwide search for a new chief (with two strong internal candidates), ongoing disciplinary action on two captains, union contract negotiations and an agency-wide restructuring to shrink spending and balance the 2011-12 budget by June have filled roughly a dozen previously empty seats at the increasingly frequent and urgent board meetings.
The new fire board followers are coming up to speed quickly and are concerned with perceived excessive compensation and pension benefits in an era of shrinking revenues and budget shortfalls.
That much was evident on Saturday when the board convened ostensibly to hear, in closed session, from a team of evaluators tasked with winnowing down 48 contenders for the vacant chief position to three or four finalists, and to discuss a proposed attrition package.
Both matters will be taken up again on April 13, when the chief position finalists will meet with the board, likely in closed session, and the board will make a final decision on the attrition package.
“These days there’s a lot more happening than what’s on the agenda,” said El Dorado Hills resident Ron Mikulaco by phone recently.
Saturday was no exception. The “oral communications” that precedes “new business” on every public board meeting agenda turned into a lively and informative 20 minute discussion, part question and answer session and part outlet for Mikulaco, Bob Luca, Pete CaJacob, Pete Voy, Dick Callahan and others residents concerned with spending in the district.
Mikulaco presented the board a written list of recommendations for the budget process and union contract negotiations:
“These are just ideas to consider,” said Mikulaco. “But they’re all being doing in other places right around here.”
Firefighter’s Union President Tom Anselmo later told Mikulaco that “six or seven of those things you brought up” are under consideration.
Before the meeting was over Director Barbara Winn, who sits on the newly consolidated Budget and Negotiating Committee, promised that total compensation will be reduced.
The lynchpin to the budget proposal submitted by former Folsom Fire Chief Dan Haverty, who’s acting as a consultant to the board, is inticing three senior captains and one battalion chief to retire up to four years earlier than they’d planned.
Past attrition incentives, including two extra years PERS vesting or a recently expired $75,000 buyout, motivated a total of four departures in 2010 and 2011. The PERS incentive expires on April 20 and can’t be offered again until September. A working group consisting of administration and labor leadership has recommended the board double up the incentive offer, providing both the $75,000 cash and the two years of PERS credit to the four potential early retirees.
Battalion Chief Dwight Piper and three unnamed senior captains have committed to retire under the proposed incentive. The current fiscal year payroll savings total roughly $105,000 through June and roughly $600,000 per year thereafter, according to interim Chief Jim O’Camb, who argued for the incentive.
Director John Hidahl sat on an ad hoc committee to consider the exit incentive with board President Greg Durante. They recommended the board extend the $75,000 cash offer, but not combine it with the PERS incentive.
“There’s been a lot of public concern with salaries, buyouts and other things,” said Hidahl.
Director Jim Hartley questioned the committee’s recommendation. “The way I look at it … money’s either being spent on wages or a buyout, and [the buyout] certainly pays dividends next year and years after, depending on how long before these guys retire.”
Anselmo provided the math behind Hartley’s observation. “If we spend $900,000 to $1 million (the annual cost of the PERS credit, plus the cash incentive, times four) you will save $600,000 per year. It pays for itself in a year and a half.”
Anselmo asked the board to do what they could to avoid service reductions, echoing Mikulaco, “We’ve got the keep the guys and gals in the boots.
“The pay cuts and the education incentives, we’ll work on that,” he said, stopping short of promising any concessions in the union contract.
Mikulaco was not placated. “In general, can we get away from golden handshakes, severance pay and incentives?” he asked. “We pay incredible salaries and benefits. It seems like we’re just throwing money at this thing.”
Winn defended the attrition proposal as “trying to get our staffing and service levels where they need to be as quick as we can so that we can live within our means.”
Chief Dave Roberts called the attrition plan “a huge step. We’re talking about saving $608,000 per year.”
He reminded the audience, “If we don’t enact this plan our whole south end could be empty,” referring to the potential closure of Station 87 in the business park.
Chief O’Camb concurred, and credited past boards for “a tremendous run of responsible spending,” resulting in the current $22-plus million reserve that, he hinted, should be tapped before any station closures or staff reductions.
“That money was put aside so that we can provide the highest level of service we can,” he said. “The whole city of Folsom, including fire, has a $5 million reserve. Sac Metro, who has a budget in the $50 million range, has an $8 million reserve.”
The board put off the decision on the attrition offer to the April 13 meeting, one week before the PERS incentive expires.
The board also voted to add a vesting requirement for retiree health benefits on the chief position. Fire District CFO Connie Baer explained that all retirees are currently 100 percent vested in the district retiree health benefit program. The new provision creates a sliding scale of district contribution that fully pays for retiree health benefits after 20 years of service. A similar vesting clause is anticipated in the firefighter’s union contract.