Monday, August 4, 2014

(Nevada County) Grand jury: Time to reorganize

June 27, 2014
The Union of Grass Valley
By Keri Brenner

The solution for serious financial problems at Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and rising costs at other fire agencies is to form a single fire authority in western Nevada County, a new grand jury report says.
“The Nevada County Board of Supervisors should direct LAFCo to begin research on the steps necessary to reorganize western Nevada County fire districts into a single fire authority,” says the 2013-14 Nevada County Civil grand jury report. “This should be a priority for the safety of residents in western Nevada County.”
LAFCo, or Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission, provides information and education to board members and staff of special districts, including fire districts.
Forming a single fire authority under the county’s board of supervisors was one of several recommendations in the scathing study. The report concentrated its criticism on Consolidated’s finances, but concluded that the problems at Consolidated could be improved by drawing together all 10 fire districts and departments in the entire western part of the county. Those include Consolidated, Penn Valley, Rough and Ready, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Higgins, North San Juan, Ophir Hill, Peardale-Chicago Park and Washington.
Currently, Penn Valley, Consolidated, Nevada City and Grass Valley are in talks to share services under a single fire chief.
“To abolish all districts because of the failure of one is absurd,” said Penn Valley Fire Board Chairman Kurt Grundel.
“The grand jury missed their charge, which was to look at one district (Consolidated),” Grundel said, adding that Penn Valley was operating in the black. “They looked at one and their result is to dissolve all the others too.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the execution (of the report),” Grundel added. “I fault the conclusion, and that just cheapens the whole review.”
Nevada City Fire Chief Sam Goodspeed said he agreed with the need for more shared services, but disagreed that LAFCo or another public agency should be placed in charge.
“We have the work (for shared services) in progress for a long time,” Goodspeed said. “I hope they give us the opportunity to do this before they bring in LAFCo to mandate something.
“Bringing in another agency is going to slow us down even further,” said Goodspeed, who serves as a part-time chief plus as a full-time captain on the Nevada City fire department.
Interim chiefs are currently serving in Penn Valley, Grass Valley and Consolidated.
“Our four agencies ... have been continuing to work toward shared services, as outlined at the public meeting on May 12,” said Grass Valley Interim Fire Chief Mark Buttron. “That’s the course of action we determined was the best course of action, and we continue down that path.”
Buttron said the two committees formed at the May 12 meeting – a “working group” and a “technical group” — are “still collecting data so that we can bring back a model to another meeting.”
As to Consolidated’s finances, the report targets a five-year budget projection prepared last year that showed the fire district’s budget deficit, now estimated at $81,525 for 2013-14, could reach as high as $2 million to $4 million by 2018-19. Consolidated is currently “buying” cash flow in advance on future expected tax revenue in the state-authorized Teeter Fund program to keep its operations going – a practice the grand jury found worrisome.
“It is the feeling of the Nevada County grand jury that Nevada County Consolidated Fire District will be required to take actions that may include closure of fire stations and layoff of personnel if immediate steps are not taken to reduce spending and control costs,” the report said. “The Nevada County grand jury feels that rising costs, especially in employee benefits, will soon place all fire agencies in a difficult budget situation.”
The report also had numerous criticisms taken from a Citizens’ Oversight Committee report earlier this year. The committee was authorized to oversee the expenditures of Consolidated’s 2012 Special Tax revenue, but it was formed 18 months after the election, the grand jury noted.
As reported earlier by The Union, the oversight committee concluded that Consolidated board misled the public by not disclosing a late 2011 side letter agreement to reopen contract negotiations with firefighters after a Special Tax passed.
“The (Consolidated) board reinstated a $39,800 holiday stipend for safety personnel,” the grand jury report states. “The (citizens oversight committee) report stated that based upon information concerning the Special Tax of 2012, approval of this reinstatement payment is considered inconsistent with the statements made in support of the ballot measure.”
Consolidated Fire board members said Thursday the release of the report took them by surprise.
Board members Tom Carrington and Ron Pennington declined immediate comment, saying they hadn’t yet had a chance to absorb the full report.
“There is just too much to digest in this,” said Carrington, who is board vice chairman. “It would be improper of me to comment on this until the board members have a chance to discuss it.”
Board Chairman Warren Knox, who has been leading efforts toward shared services among Consolidated, Penn Valley, Grass Valley and Nevada City, was out of town on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Others involved in the shared services talks, including Grass Valley City Manager Bob Richardson and Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston, could not immediately be reached for comment.
To see a copy of the grand jury report, go to and click on “Jury” and “Grand Jury reports.”
Official responses from the various fire districts mentioned in the report are due back to the grand jury at the end of September.
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

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