El Dorado County’s 2010-11 Grand Jury delivered a scathing review of the El Dorado Hills Fire District, calling it “top-heavy,” “over compensated,” “inflexible” and out of step with the realities of what its firefighters do on a daily basis.
The June 10 report accuses the district of “overspending … despite receiving a disproportionate amount of property tax,” and goes so far as to encourage the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to reevaluate the property tax formula that provides the district its life-blood 17.5 percent of local property tax revenue.
Recently retired Chief Brian Veerkamp’s isn’t mentioned by name, but his comments are cited extensively, starting with his proclamation during a September 2010 fire board meeting covered by Village Life that his district was “overstaffed and suffering from runaway overtime.”
The report traces the district’s budget pressures to a contentious 2005-06 union contract that contained provisions expensive to taxpayers now and in the future. The grand jury found that cost of living increases in that Memorandum of Understanding plus salary adjustments granted by the fire board in 2006 resulted in a combined salary jump of 16 percent between July 2006 and July 2008.
The grand jury criticized the firefighters union for being more concerned with preventing layoffs than cutting costs, but failed to credit current union leadership for their reported cooperation in negotiations currently under way for the new contract, targeted for release later this month.
With the district headed toward spending a grand-jury-estimated 86 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits, many of their recommendations target the board’s labor negotiation process:
The grand jury was particularly harsh on the district’s high salaries, overtime and benefits. “While teachers annually face layoffs and municipal fire departments struggle, the [El Dorado Hills] firefighters average annual overtime pay is $39,000 and annual [education bonus] is nearly $8,000.” The report cites two captains who earned education bonuses of $21,003 and $23,080 and three that earned more than $180,000 total during fiscal year 2009-10.
The grand jury seemed incredulous at times in describing the stackable, percentage-based education bonuses, especially in light of no-cost retirement and comprehensive insurance that extends from uniform issuance to the grave.
A comparison of surrounding fire agencies, including El Dorado County Fire, Rocklin, Lincoln, South Lake Tahoe, Sacramento Metropolitan and Sacramento, demonstrated that the El Dorado Hills Fire District enjoys the highest salaries and most generous benefits in the region:
The survey also found that El Dorado Hills has the lowest:
The fire district’s own analysis found that total dispatches ranged from .87 to 1.7 responses every 24 hours in each of the four stations. In addition to fire and medical calls, the total dispatches include false alarms, cancelled calls, snake removals, lock-outs and “service” calls.
The grand jury concluded that the district contains a disproportionate number of captains and chiefs, and called the shift battalion chief role “an unnecessary layer of supervision” that could be accomplished by captains.
Recently named Fire Chief Dave Roberts has already eliminated the shift battalion chief position. The district’s recent “Attrition and Administrative Reorganization” reduces the seven budgeted chief positions to four.
The grand jury also found that the training and deployment strategy, largely targeted at fighting fires, does not fit the community’s primary service demand, emergency medical.
The report calls the district a “first responder medical resource and non-emergency community service provider.” Only 4.2 percent of the calls are fire related, and most of those are on summer strike teams outside the district. Total calls for service, which were never high, decreased by 7 percent between 2006 and 2010, with 2009 being particularly light: 28 percent fewer total structure fires and 50 percent fewer wildland fires. Veerkamp told the grand jury that only six significant structure fires occurred in 2009.
The grand jury found the district’s four stations staffed at higher levels than surrounding agencies, but didn’t factor in recent reductions in engine company staffing accomplished by a working group of administration, union leaders and consultant Dan Haverty.
Strong fiscal foundation
The grand jury concluded that historically strong revenues masked questionable spending practices for years, until the housing downturn impacted property tax revenues and resulted in budget shortfalls.
The report traces the district’s fiscal good fortune to its emergence from Proposition 13 with a healthy 17.5 percent share of property tax revenue, the result of three strong revenue years prior to the landmark tax legislation’s enactment in 1978. By comparison, nearby Latrobe Fire District receives only 5.4 percent.
Because the district serves a small portion of Sacramento County it dodged another legacy of Proposition 13, the state grab of up to 10 percent of district revenue known as “ERAF,” the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund.
The third and largest factor in the district’s historic prosperity was the boom in upscale housing that began in the late 1980s, creating more assessed value in El Dorado Hills than the rest of the county combined.
The grand jury conjectured that another reason district spending has gone unchecked is its “stand-alone” status. Unlike municipal and county fire departments, it doesn’t have to compete with other departments or agencies for funding. Until recently, few members of the public attended board meetings, resulting very little citizen oversight.
The grand jury failed to credit former El Dorado Hills fire boards for building up one of the largest reserve funds in the state. The district’s unallocated general reserve has grown to $14.3 million, with an additional $7.3 million capital reserve fueled primarily by developer fees, according to district financial reports and the grand jury.
By comparison, the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department, which is roughly 10 times larger, has a general reserve of $9.5 million and a capital reserve of just $1.8 million.
The reserve was called upon to offset a $900,000 shortfall in 2009-10. While the grand jury conducted its investigation, the district was planning to tap the reserve again for $700,000 in 2010-11. Chief Roberts is optimistic that recent retirements and budget reductions will reduce the reserve usage to less than $500,000.
Overtime costs have jumped from an average $12,810 per firefighter in 2005-06 to $39,501 in 2009-10, largely due to a contract provision that mandated four firefighters on an engine, a policy the grand jury called an “inflexible staffing model.”
It goes on to criticize another contract provision that prohibits the district from utilizing flexible “floater” positions and volunteers to reduce overtime. Both are used extensively in other fire agencies, and opposed by the El Dorado Hills Firefighter’s union.
Backfilling two captains on paid administrative leave during 2009 and 2010 also contributed to overtime-bloat.
El Dorado Hills firefighters are required to hold a paramedic license, yet began receiving a 9 percent stipend in 2006, according to the grand jury. Captains got 4 percent; engineers got 5 percent.
The grand jury calculated that on a $100,000 salary, the paramedic certificate alone can earn a firefighter (and cost the taxpayer) $450,000 over a 30 year career and 20 year retirement.
Educational Incentive Pay increased from $122,000 in 2005-06 to $437,000 in 2009-10, an average of $7,800 per fire employee per year, the highest in the Sacramento area, according to the report.
Former union President Dave Merino told Village Life that the education bonuses were originally implemented in lieu of across-the-board salary increases.
Board members took a different tack with the grand jury, calling the stackable bonuses “leadership development,” intended to keep firefighters from transferring to a higher paying Fire Department.
The grand jury countered: “In the unlikely event a firefighter would leave … due to cuts in the education incentive plan, there would likely be … a cavalcade of applicants to replace the firefighter — including highly qualified firefighters recently laid off from other jurisdictions.”
In reality, the rare vacancies in recent years have typically been filled from the pool of trained volunteers.
Education Incentive Pay rolls into the Public Employees Retirement System retirement calculations, and thus qualifies as what grand jury calls a “hidden escalator.”
The report attributes the spike in education bonuses to a 2008 change in education bonus calculations.
The 2005-06 MOU contained fixed-price education incentives: EMT-1, $100 per month; Associate of Arts or Science Degree: $200 per month; Bachelor of Arts or Science Degree: $300 per month; State Fire Officer Certification: $200 per month; and State Chief Officer Certification: $300 per month.
In 2008 the deal got sweeter. The bonuses became percentage-based and stackable up to 25 percent of base pay: EMT-1: 1.5 percent of base pay; AA/AS: 3 percent; BA/BS: 5 percent; MA/MS: 5 percent; Fire Officer: 3 percent; Chief Officer: 3.5 percent of base pay.
The AA and BA degrees do not have to be germane to fire science or administration.
The report cites the example of a new firefighter hired for $80,000 who takes full advantage of the education bonuses and earns normal raises and promotions over the course of a 30-year career. After 20 years in retirement, the grand jury calculated that her bonuses would cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
Board members assured the grand jury that staffing levels, education incentives, the use of “floaters” to reduce overtime and employee contributions toward their retirement and insurance plans are all on the table in the current contract negotiations.
Firefighters also receive longevity pay that ranges from $500 to $2,000 annually, depending on seniority.
The report also cites four chiefs currently receiving a $12,000 in annual “Management Incentive Pay.” The grand jury explains the bonus thusly: “Management pay is offered to compensate chief officers for their inability to earn overtime pay, but is also ‘PERSable,’ which qualifies as a hidden escalator, and translates to a $240,000 cost to the taxpayer over a typical 20-year retirement.”
Chief Roberts defended the bonus, especially in light of the recent elimination of shift battalion chiefs, which forces the four remaining chiefs into a 24-hour on-call role in addition to their 40-hour work week “which is more like 50 to 55,” said Roberts, who added, “There are 10 to 11 days per month when we can’t go farther than Folsom or Shingle Springs.”
For the shift firefighters, a powerful non-monetary benefit of the job is its schedule. Firefighters, engineers and captains work a “two-on-four-off” schedule — two consecutive 24-hour shifts every six days, totaling 10 long days per month, a common work schedule in the fire service.
The report calls the schedule a “two-day work week,” during which “eating, exercising and sleeping is included.” It outlines a less-than-gruelling 24-hour workday interrupted by one or two calls for service. Morning activities include breakfast, checking equipment and medications on the ambulance, exercise and training. Afternoons are dedicated to community service and more training, followed by dinner and down time in the fire house. Shift employees sleep in a firehouse dormitory.
The report doesn’t mention that in addition to the in-district calls, firefighters also respond outside the district and spend a lot of time on “move ups” to cover other stations. They also participate in particularly gruelling summer strike forces.
Despite all the criticism, the grand jury concludes that the fire board “appears to be heading in the right direction,” as evidenced by the recent retirement incentive program. Its full fiscal results are not reflected in the report but should “give the department some staffing breathing room,” the report states.
The board has targeted the June 29 special board meeting (6 p.m. at 1050 Wilson Blvd.) to adopt the new 2011-12 MOU. Chief Roberts told Village Life that the new 27-month contract assumes additional 5 percent drops in tax revenue in each of the next two years, and delivers a balanced budget.
As an elected body the fire board has 60 days from the June 10 report date to respond to the grand jury’s findings and recommendations. The full report can be found at www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/Government/GrandJury/2010-2011_Grand_Jury_Report.aspx.