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Fire district fires back

By From page A1 | September 3, 2011

The El Dorado Hills Fire Board questioned the basis for the El Dorado County Grand Jury’s investigation of their agency, but actually agreed with many of the findings, asserting in a just-released response that the organizational changes called for were already under way when the grand jury released its highly critical report in June.

The report knocked the district as “top-heavy,” “over compensated,” “inflexible” and out of step with the realities of what its firefighters do on a daily basis. It then struck below the belt, suggesting that the district’s portion of local property tax be re-evaluated — an idea fire officials adamantly opposed.

“Despite the criticisms contained in the grand jury report, most of which have either been addressed or will be addressed, we sincerely doubt that the residents of El Dorado Hills would advocate for the transfer of tax dollars from this important local agency to the county as a whole,” the board’s response states. “Those tax dollars would not return to the El Dorado Hills community and the critical services we provide might be compromised.”

The board also disputes the stated justification for the investigation, that a high-placed but unnamed county official reported the El Dorado Hills Fire District was “overspending its budget despite receiving a disproportionate amount of property tax revenue.”

“The district has not overspent its budget in any year,” states the introduction to the 26-page response, which argues that all expenditures have been made within the constraints of adopted budgets, even if the district’s bountiful reserve had to be tapped occasionally.

“That’s what it’s there for,” said Chief Dave Roberts.

The response acknowledges the district’s property tax increment, 17.5 percent, as “enviable,” but steadfastly holds that it’s not disproportionate given the demands of the district located on the urban-wildland interface with high home values, transportation bottlenecks and lots and lots of dry grass.

The latest union contract, ratified in June, addresses many of the grand jury’s findings, including former chief Veerkamp’s concerns about staffing and overtime, a holdover from the 2006 contract that was completed before recent revenue downturns.

The board conceded that changes to the organization were needed a year ago but that a major attrition plan and resulting reorganization, in conjunction with a new union contract, have since been accomplished, eliminating three battalion chief positions and six line personnel through attrition over the last 10 months.

Shortly after the grand jury report was issued in June, the district and the union agreed to a 27-month contract that maintains current wage levels, reduces educational incentive pay, reduces staffing requirements, permits the use of floaters and requires employees to contribute 3 percent of their salary toward retirement plan costs.

The agreement also preserves the right to modify the retirement plan for new hires and provides for contract “reopeners” if tax revenues fall short of current projections.

The grand jury took free reign to criticize the district on many fronts. The board’s response addresses the eight formal findings and 12 recommendations, several of which are redundant. The full response can be found on the district website – edhfire.com.

The grand jury found that salaries and benefits in El Dorado Hills were “significantly higher than other fire departments.”

The fire board agreed, but only in the past tense. They were excessive under the prior union contract. The current salary and benefits package, however, is only slightly higher than comparable agencies in the region. The response includes compensation comparisons that prove the point, noting several salary survey inaccuracies in the original report.

Low call volumes
The grand jury presented statistics that demonstrate low call volumes, including total dispatches that range from just .87 to 1.7 calls every 24 hours per station. The response points out that those statistics only reflect the station of origin for each call, and that more than a quarter of calls require responses from multiple stations.

The district doesn’t dispute that the number of service calls in El Dorado Hills is relatively low, arguing instead, “Bare number of calls is not this district’s guiding principle”; the staffing and deployment strategy is designed to ensure optimal response time and effectiveness.

The response outlines the challenges of achieving good response times in El Dorado Hills, which is both suburban and rural, with vast areas of wildland/urban interface, development in remote corners of the district and more on the way.

Close a station
The board rejected the grand jury’s recommendation to close or reduce service in one station as a budgetary stop-gap, “unless financial circumstances became so dire as to require such drastic measures.”

The response argues that the four stations are placed strategically to provide ambulance response within six minutes 90 percent of the time. “The four stations were planned, built and paid for in cash largely from the proceeds of development fees … generated from the very homes and businesses these facilities now serve.”

Two of the stations are located in areas only partially built out, but where significant additional growth is expected.

More ambulance
The grand jury found that the district’s “staffing and deployment strategy does not fit service demands of the community and is not cost effective,” and recommended emergency medical response should be emphasized over fire fighting.

The district’s response questions the grand jury’s understanding of the emergency medical response capabilities in El Dorado Hills. “To clarify, each of the four stations is staffed with [advanced life support] paramedics. Each engine carries the identical medical equipment that an ambulance carries and can perform all the same procedures with the exception of transportation to the hospital.”

The board stood by its current staff deployment strategy, including the “two on, four-off” work schedule the grand jury portrayed in an unflattering light, as both common in the fire service and very effective.

The response boasts that daily staffing was reduced from a minimum of 17 in 2009 to 15 for 2011-12 and will be 14 in 2012-13 and thereafter.

Floaters and volunteers
The grand jury also recommended more and better use of straight-time “floater” positions and volunteers to reduce the district’s historic overtime excesses.

“Floater” positions are allowed in the new contract, but the board concluded that potential legal and operational impacts complicate broader use of volunteers. A committee has been formed to investigate.

Top heavy
The grand jury also found the organization top-heavy, with “20 of the uniformed staff (seven chiefs plus 13 captains) supervising the other 34.”

The recent reorganization eliminated three battalion chief positions.

Campaign funding
The board rejected the grand jury’s finding that the El Dorado Hills Fire Fighters Association is a primary contributor to the campaigns of board candidates.

Union officials conceded that they have reimbursed the roughly $500 filing fees for some candidates in the past. But none of the current board members filed county election forms indicating they spent more than $1,000 on their campaigns, according to the response. Directors John Hidahl, Jim Hartley and Lou Barber signed letters stating that they’ve never accepted any contributions from the union or its political action committee.

The response also contested a related statement in the grand jury report that Board President Greg Durante was formerly a salaried firefighter. He was, in fact, a volunteer.

Labor negotiations
The grand jury recommended the board be more “knowledgeable, professional and proactive in its labor negotiation efforts,” and that it include a labor relations expert and the chief in the next negotiation.

The board hired Dr. Dan Haverty, the former Folsom fire chief, to assist with the recent chief replacement, the union contract negotiation and budget strategy.

Both internal candidates for the chief position, Dave Roberts and Jim O’Camb, played instrumental roles in the most recent contract negotiation. The board has committed to continuing the practice..

The result, according to all parties, including the union leadership, was an amicable negotiation that balanced the 2011-12 budget.

Tax allocation
The grand jury recommendation that the district’s life-blood 17.5 percent slice of the 1 percent property tax be re-evaluated was flatly rejected by the board as “not warranted,” and provoked some strong language in the response.

The board defended its fiscal practices, stating, “We have maintained and built prudent reserves. Importantly, we have no debt. We have utilized our resources wisely.

“Our goal is to provide our residents the best quality fire and emergency medical response that can be prudently provided. We have done that and will continue to do so.”

The grand jury’s website contains the full report: www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/Government/GrandJury/2010-2011_Grand_Jury_Report.aspx

Mike Roberts


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