Husband and wife slate Craig and Sherry Petersen describe themselves as reluctant candidates for the El Dorado Hills Fire Board — reluctant in that they’ve recently retired, love to travel, and are active hikers, bikers and runners, all of which will get less attention if a PeterSEN (with an “E”) wins one or both of the two contested seats this fall.
And if the electoral complications of running as a husband and wife aren’t daunting enough, there’s this wrinkle: the other non-incumbent in the race is the similarly named John PeterSON (with an “O”), a fact that could splinter their support.
They originally envisioned just one Petersen on the ballot — they hadn’t decided which one — running with a comparably minded slate-mate. But no qualified candidate stepped forward.
Craig Petersen, 59, was a clinical nutritionist at UC Davis Medical Center until he retired in 2011. He retains a private practice and works about three days a week.
Sherry Petersen, 53, worked for large pharmaceutical firms overseeing roughly a half billion dollars in contracts with managed care companies, a position that kept her on the road and in the air a lot.
She’s currently creating an Internet-based healthcare advice business, a roadmap to the increasingly popular high-deductible health plans on the market. She’s also getting to know more about the inner workings of the community she and Craig have enjoyed for 29 years.
The Petersens moved to Governors Village in 1983 “to live in the country,” said Craig. They spent summer evenings either on the lake or building trails around it, and enjoyed mountain biking and hiking in what became Serrano and Ridgeview.
Voracious readers and news hounds, they said they’ve often regretted not having the time to get more involved in the inner-workings of the community they love. “Well, we’ve got the time now,” said Craig.
“It was put up or shut up time for me,” said Sherry. “I couldn’t keep showing up at their meetings and complaining if I wasn’t willing to participate in this way.”
The Petersens started attending board meetings last year, and were soon asking tough questions. A concerned group of fire district fiscal watchdogs, many graying around their muzzles, welcomed young blood into the pack and have, to varying degrees, embraced their candidacy.
The candidates have kept them at arm’s length, however, along with the firefighters’ union, refusing donations and even endorsements from anyone associated with the district.
Bob Luca nonetheless tossed some praise their way, describing them in an e-mail to Village Life as “bright people who care about how our tax dollars are spent, and also about the fiscal future of our fire department,” adding, “We need new people on the board willing to look at new ideas and put some fresh eyes on the budget.”
Priority 1: Cut spending
The Petersens call for top-down fiscal discipline in a district that’s tapped an admittedly healthy reserve to make ends meet in recent years, yet continues to provide high salaries and generous bonuses and benefits left over from better times.
Sherry spent hours comparing the local operating budget with other agencies and identified spending on a wide range of incidentals that districts with lower revenues either go without or spend far less on, she said.
Her list includes iPads, uniforms, tools, wetsuits and, yes, bagpipes.
Complicating matters, the district’s reserve fund ballooned during the boom years, and current sits at $21.9 million, $13.8 million of which is considered “general reserve,” meaning it’s not earmarked for any specific purpose. The reserve also has $91,584 allocated to retiree medical, according to the 2012-13 Preliminary Budget2012-13 Preliminary Budget.
The current unfunded retirement benefits will consume all of that, she warns. If the board fails to reign in spending and get their employees to pay a larger portion of their retirement and medical bills, the district will become one more agency adding service fees and scrambling to pass tax measures.
To get back on track, the couple propose limiting spending on salaries and operations to $11 million, down from $13.2 million in the 2012-13 Preliminary Budget, $13.1 million last year, and a high of $14.8 million in 2009-10. They propose using the savings to grow the reserve, thus building a protective levee against the potential tsunami of promised retiree benefits.
Priority 2: Faster EMS
Faster emergency response is the Petersens’ second large goal. Sherry dug into the call statistics in the 2011 Annual Report and deemed 90 percent of the calls as “emergency.”
The monthly Response Time Statistics reveal that the district is well shy of its stated response goal: a six-minute response 90 percent of the time.
The Petersens ask why the district has 12 large fire apparatus and just one ambulance, given the 1,407 medical calls vs. 93 fire calls last year.
“Fifty eight percent of non-volunteer fire stations in this country are able to achieve a six-minute response time,” said Sherry.
“For what we’re spending, we should too,” said Craig.
They’d like the board to consider smaller, more agile “ambulance-like vehicles,” perhaps dispatched from smaller, less-expensive, medically-oriented stations situated closer to residential clusters.
Such vehicles might have to operate outside the fiscally strapped Joint Powers Authority, which funds current ambulance service on El Dorado County’s western slope.
The discussion is relevant now because the 2012-13 capital budget includes a $1.1 million ladder truck, a $600,000 engine and the renovation of Station 87 on Francisco Boulevard, with a price tag of $3 million that becomes more than $4 million when the new station and an interim station in the nearby Lake Forest retail center are outfitted.
The Petersens see the planned spending as a $6 million investment in doing things the old way. They’d like to hear a substantive discussion of alternative options and they’d like to hear some additional voices in that dialogue.
“We don’t want to be limited by just the five people currently on the board making these decisions,” said Sherry.
Gathering comparison data
They don’t claim to be experts. “I’m a business person, not a fireman,” said Sherry.
To gain a better understanding of fire and emergency medical operations, the Petersens studied other agencies around the state, personally contacted more than a dozen chiefs and eventually visited an estimated 30 to 40 stations over the last several months. They interviewed administrators and their accountants, asking how and how well things worked.
The officials they contacted were open and friendly, their comments revealing. “We saw that good service is being provided for less than we’re spending here,” said Sherry.
South Placer County officials at Granite Bay’s Olive Branch station, built for $2.8 million in 2008, felt their station was excessive, and told the Petersens they’d rather the money were spent to increase staffing.
The Petersens gathered data on the agencies they studied, and have published a comparison of characteristics, costs and performance metrics for a dozen comparable city fire departments plus seven special districts, including Petaluma, Sausalito, Woodland, Poway, Lakeside and others, many of which have far worse traffic congestion than El Dorado Hills, and geographical and access challenges that include train tracks, freeways, colleges, lakes and old narrow streets.
They also compare ISO insurance ratings for many of those agencies. The comparisons, the Petersens said, make a compelling argument that agencies similar in size and complexity are providing service at least as good, and in some cases better than El Dorado Hills, and all of them do so with less overall spending.
“Even if I add $1 million to the city fire department budgets for the support services the cities provide, we are still 40 percent more than Poway, Sausalito and San Luis Obispo,” said Sherry. “We just spend too much,”
El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts disagrees. Next week’s Village Life will summarize a presentation he recently delivered to the local Tea Party Patriots of El Dorado Hills in defense of his district.
The Petersens acknowledge the concessions in the most recent union contract, which now includes a 3 percent (of salary) CalPERS contribution, but said they want to see pension and retiree healthcare cost sharing for current and future employees increased to levels in comparable agencies — Folsom firefighters now pay 9 percent — or to levels equivalent to those in the recently passed state pension reform.
They warn that unless the CalPERs return on investments improves, the district’s seemingly flush reserve won’t cover unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities.
“We’ve made a commitment to these individuals who have worked for us and now we need to meet those commitments,” said Sherry. “That starts by righting the fiscal ship, not overspending on new firehouses with outdated designs, training centers we don’t need, or wet suits gear for a water rescue service that other agencies already provide.”
She points out that fire and EMS agencies across the country have started imposing fees for service. “They have no choice. It’s either that or start laying off firefighters and browning out stations.”
Folsom’s City Council recently implemented a $225 fee for medical calls to a residence.
A Folsom response in El Dorado Hills ‒ which could easily happen under the current mutual aid policies ‒ could be billable.
For more on the Petersens’ campaign, see “Petersens’ recipe for smaller, faster, cheaper emergency response” on Villagelife.com.