Fire board incumbents cite accomplishments
El Dorado Hills Fire Board incumbents John Hidahl and Jim Hartley are running for reelection on a track record of budget balancing, fire house building and prudent fiscal policy making that they say have created one of the top emergency response agencies in the state.
Hidahl brings 28 years of board service stretching back to 1981, along with long-standing volunteer involvement in El Dorado Hills’ regulatory committees dealing with land use and county governance. He led the 2005 cityhood effort with his friend and fellow activist Norm Rowett.
Hartley has served on the board for 12 years. The retired Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Assistant Chief was an active participant in the 17-district consolidation that created “Sac Metro,” experience that could become increasingly relevant as the county’s rural fire districts grapple with revenue shortfalls and reduced services.
The incumbent candidates have seen their policies and fiscal acumen challenged in a 2011 Grand Jury report and again during a July Tea Party presentation, both of which became fodder for their critics, including the three challengers for their two board seats.
Hidahl and Hartley take unabashed pride in the organization they’ve help build. Three of the four current fire stations were built with both on the board.
A fourth fire station, the planned replacement of the original “volunteer” station on Francisco Boulevard, is scheduled for 2013.
As recent evidence of their leadership, they point to last year’s unprecedented revenue shortfall, resulting in a preliminary budget that was upside down by more than $2 million.
Their board also had to cope with the expiration and renegotiation of a union contract that included hard-wired staffing levels their historically tough chief, Brian Veerkamp, had publicly called excessive on several occasions the prior year.
That episode and others angered their equally historically strong firefighter’s union. Veerkamp’s subsequent retirement added a chief replacement to the board’s 2011 to-do list, along with cutting $2-plus million in spending, reducing staff and renegotiating the union contract with potentially hostile labor leaders, all of whom were highly respected firefighters.
Hidahl and Hartley said their board did all that and more, by eliciting the help of both internal candidates for the chief position, Battalion Chief Dave Roberts and Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb. Rather than confronting the leadership of El Dorado Hills Professional Firefighters Local 3604 — Tom Anselmo, Dave Brady and Matt Echhardt — the board asked for their help solving the problem in total.
They formed a hybrid Budget and Negotiation Committee, with Hidahl and Director Barbara Wynn representing the board. They brought in respected former Folsom Fire Chief and El Dorado Hills resident Dan Haverty to oversee the BANC.
At the time, board watchers questioned the strategy, which eventually produced a new chief, a balanced budget, a new memorandum of understanding and a new atmosphere of cooperative decision making.
In a budget constrained era, with service cuts, layoffs and station closures commonplace in emergency service agencies, “We downsized without layoffs, station closures or brownouts,” said Hidahl, who concedes a lone service reduction from the 2011 negotiation: engine company staffing dropped from four to three.
The committee achieved staff reductions at both the “line” and “chief” level, all through attrition, resulting in a leaner organization that regained the confidence of its firefighters and, importantly, its volunteers.
The resulting labor agreement kept salaries flat, allowed the use of “floaters” to reduce overtime and also required a 3 percent employee CalPERS contribution for the first time.
Both men hear the accusations of reckless spending and the comparison to other agencies.
They dismisses budget comparisons to Folsom or any city-based fire department that enjoys the infrastructure of a city behind them, providing “personnel, legal, maintenance, facilities and a lot of equipment,” said Hartley, whereas El Dorado Hills pays “every dime for the service we provide.”
They respond to their critics by pointing to 49 years of balanced budgets and the elephant in any room where El Dorado Hills finances are discussed, a reserve fund that totaled $21.9 million as of the 2011 annual report.
They argue that the mammoth reserve fund wouldn’t have happened without the fiscally prudent policies of their boards in good times and bad.
The reserve was accumulated during the housing boom, the gilded era between 1998 and 2008 when district population doubled. “We kept funding the reserve, even while we were building stations and buying apparatus,” said Hidahl.
During the subsequent fall to earth, their boards nurtured the reserve, they say, allowing only minor withdrawals while the total assessed value of El Dorado Hills property plummeted 14 percent, a whopping $1.1 billion between 2008 and 2011, accompanied by a corresponding $2.1 million dive in the district’s life-blood property tax revenue.
Hartley began his fire service career as a volunteer in West Sacramento, driving “code threes” (lights-and-siren, life threat calls) on weekends at age 17, earning $25 for a 24-hour shift, he said.
That experience landed him a job with the Carmichael Fire Department, which merged with Arden Fire in 1983 to become the American River Fire District. Citrus Heights Fire was absorbing neighboring agencies through the 1990s and the two combined as the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District in 2000.
Hartley was an active participant. He supported the consolidation, but wouldn’t understate the difficulty of merging organizations, each of which has its own history, identity, policies, leadership and compensation package. “It ain’t easy but sometimes you gotta’ do it,” he said.
He retired as an assistant chief in 2006, having served as fire marshal, training director and operations chief at various times. He also managed a communications center and was once in charge of homeland security for Sac Metro.
John Hidahl is a mechanical engineer by training and a systems engineer by trade. In El Dorado Hills he’s been a tireless activist in the thorny details of land use and local governance.
He leads the Area Planning Advisory Committee, which evaluates all new building projects in El Dorado Hills. He sits on various Community Service District committees.
Hidahl won his first fire board seat in 1981 after spearheading a local bond measure to replace undersized water mains and hydrants in his woodsy Lakehills neighborhood, personally working out the hydrology to ensure adequate water pressure for fire suppression.
At the time there were just two fire stations in El Dorado Hills. Most firefighters were volunteers. The district soon transitioned to paid firefighters, a move that can quash the volunteer organization, Hartley added.
But that didn’t happen in El Dorado Hills. “We made sure they got some time on the truck, and maintained active recruitment and training programs,” he said. “Volunteers are critical … they essentially double the capacity of the organization.”
El Dorado Hills retains a powerful and popular volunteer program.
Neighboring fire districts haven’t fared nearly as well at El Dorado Hills in recent years.
The El Dorado Hills Fire District has a history of lending a hand to its less fortunate neighbors, a tradition that continues today. Chief Roberts is working with the JPA to address revenue shortfalls that are currently reducing ambulance service in the county.
Roberts, Hidahl and Hartley are all involved with the League of Fire Boards, formed last year by west slope fire districts facing unprecedented budget shortfalls.
The league’s aim is to consolidate services between districts and gain whatever efficiencies they can, with the ultimate goal of maintaining basic fire service in areas of the county currently facing major service reductions.
“We’re trying to find creative ways to help our neighbors,” said Hartley, “and that includes annexations.”
A longer version of this story is available on the Village Life website, villagelife.com. It includes the incumbents’ position on firefighter compensation, the district reserve fund, the JPA and an exploration of the early events which shaped the district’s fiscal fortunes.
Critics point to high firefighter income levels, especially overtime, as an indication of district excess. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Hartley, who explained that board policies and labor agreements dictate that overtime, rather than new hires, be used to supplement the district labor pool and maintain staffing levels.
“We elected not to hire new people, but to pay overtime, which is cheaper, to keep our engines and fire houses fully staffed,” he said. “Other districts periodically brown out or just flat out close stations.”
“Chief Roberts recently surveyed similar districts in the area, and our base salaries and benefits are absolutely in line with Folsom, Granite Bay and Sac Metro,” said Hidahl.
“And we’ve held the line lately,” added Hartley, who dismissed the reported 9 percent that Folsom firefighters pay to CalPERS. “They were given a comparable salary increase first, whereas our guys picked up three percent and haven’t had a raise in four years.”
Both incumbents see operations budgets continuing to tighten as the public demands reform of salaries and benefits, with recently enacted state CalPERS reforms leading the way.
“But we never want to become a training ground for other agencies,” said Hidahl. “Hiring and training are too expensive.”
Hidahl was on the board that established the reserve policy in the late 1990s, and takes particular pride in its astounding ascension to $21.9 million and counting.
“At the time we had about a million in reserves and an $8 million operating budget,” he said. “We weren’t comfortable that some extreme event wouldn’t wipe us out.”
The intent, he said, was to create an “emergency carryover” of at least one year of operations spending.
“A reserve fund like this doesn’t just happen,” said Hartley. “It takes planning and discipline over many years.”
Add good fortune to the fiscal prudence and foresight Hartley mentioned.
The district’s fiscal well being is the result of several factors beyond good governance, including an “ERAF” exemption that saves more than $1 million annually, early adoption of development fees in advance of a housing explosion that saw 5,000 homes built between 2001 and 2007 and most importantly, a county-best 17.5 percent slice of the post-Proposition 13 property tax pie.
The district provides primary coverage to a portion of wildland in Sacramento County south of Folsom, and as such, qualifies for a “multi-county” exemption from a roughly 10 percent state revenue grab known as “ERAF,” initially implemented in 1992 to bolster education funding, but now generally seen as a direct deposit to the state.
Subsequent boards have carefully retained that responsibility.
Hidahl was on the late 1980s board that established a development impact fee. El Dorado Hills was one of the first agencies in the state to do so, he said. Developer-paid fees netted the district $14.3 million between 2001 and 2007.
The district’s relative prosperity is anchored by a generous 17.5 percent slice of the 1978 Proposition 13-mandated one percent property tax. By comparison, the median for other fire districts in the county is 13.5 percent.
Hidahl explained how it happened and how it might have been lost early on. The district was formed 49 years ago as a water district which also provided sewer and fire service.
Proposition 13 passed in 1973, mandating a one percent property tax to be split by local agencies according to the services they provided and their past revenues for those services. The resulting math granted El Dorado Hills 17.5 percent of all local property tax.
Then, as now, large electric pumps pulled drinkng water from Folsom Lake. A mid-1970s spike in electricity rates sent water bills into the stratosphere, resulting in a huge protest at Brooks Gym, and the eventual annexation of water and sewer rights to El Dorado Irrigation District, who promised cheaper gravity-fed water from Bass Lake.
Relieved of its water responsibility, the board was pressured to reoranize as a fire district rather than a water district, but realized that it had no legal obligation to do so. If it had, “We probably would have lost the ERAF exemption and seen our portion of property taxes lowered as well,” said Hidahl.
Both incumbents cited reliably prompt 911 response as both a top priority and an accomplishment. “An ambulance is normally there within 10 minutes, and an advanced life support engines staffed with paramedics typically arrives within six minutes,” said Hartley. “That’s in the top 10 percent of the agencies in the state.”
“We are an ISO class three agency,” he continued. “When I started we were a four, and we were bumping a two with four-person engine staffing, but we’re now at three and that’s good.”
Hartley is proud of the three fire stations built during his dozen-year board tenure, and particularly pleased with converting the former district headquarters into the Moni Gilmore Senior Center, named after the former board member and senior activist he served with on the committee that made it happen.
The district initially offered its former digs to the CSD at a cost of “a dollar a year for five years,” he said. The property was ultimately sold to the county for fair market value, roughly $750,000.
Hartley also takes pride in keeping Station 87 open. Low call volumes in the district’s newest station, located in the Business Park, made it a strong candidate for budget-driven “brown outs.”
Ignoring consultant Haverty’s advice, the board opted instead to maintain service levels. “That station’s important because it supports Latrobe, and also a large senior community at Four Seasons,” he said.
Both incumbents also use Station 87, built at the tail end of the housing boom in 2007, as an example of their board continuing to make prudent fiscal decisions even when times were good.
The developer donated a parcel, and the district built the station and bought the engines with development fees, said Hartley. A federal grant funded much of the staffing cost for the first three years.
The Joint Powers Authority for west slope ambulance response also came into existence under the incumbents’ watch, with El Dorado Hills as a catalyst, and Hartley as one of the early JPA presidents.
Hidahl sees technology as an important ingredient to gaining efficiencies in the fire and emergency medical service. “Communication systems are constantly improving, but you have to make an investment to realize those efficiencies and improvements.”
Both also call for a truce with Folsom on an outstanding ambulance fee issue. They’re hoping the two chiefs can agree that adjacent districts with mutual aid agreements shouldn’t charge each other’s residents such fees.
Hidahl takes partial credit for the five-year strategic planning process that the board continues to this day, an effort that he and former director Larry Brilliant spearheaded in the late 1980s, he said. “Larry and I did a SWAT analysis plus the first vision and mission statements.”
The recently completed a separate community-driven strategic planning exercise, which surveyed 39 community leaders and one local reporter. The recently published report indicates that the community expects quick response, skilled employees, good equipment, and the judicious use of public funding, “all things we do well,” said Hartley.
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