The Board of Supervisors is poised to spend $150,000 examining how the Kern County Fire Department operates, a rare move aimed at addressing what’s been a substantial drain on the county’s finances in recent years.
Money — or more specifically a $9.1 million lack of it — is powering the move.
That’s the gap between the money available to fund the Fire Department and what the agency spends each year. The supervisors will be asked to approve a $150,000 sole-source contract with International City/County Management Association to conduct the investigation.
The group will be tasked with a number of jobs between now and the end of 2017, according to a letter from County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop to supervisors:
• Examine the department’s organization and culture.
• Compare how the department operates to how the best fire departments in the nation run.
• Recommend a new management structure.
• Do a forensic analysis of how much work the department actually does.
• Figure out how to staff department operations in the most efficient manner.
“This is a positive thing and it’s not meant to point fingers and say anyone’s doing anything wrong,” Alsop said. “It’s good management. I think it will benefit everybody.“
Kern County Firefighters President Derek Robinson had a different view of the plan.
He said negotiations between the union and the county haven’t gone so well and that, when the union refused to give in to the county’s demand for changes to overtime rules the audit was brought up.
“They wouldn’t entertain anything we put on the table,” Robinson said. “At the end, Ryan (Alsop) brought this up and it was basically taken by everybody as a threat. This reeks of retaliation for us not going for changes to (overtime calculations).”
He said he plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting to oppose hiring the contractor, which he said is not an impartial third-party company.
In the end, he said, the audit won’t change firefighters’ minds.
“You can study all you want, the guys aren’t going to vote for this,” he said.
THE DEBATE UNTIL NOW
Similar discussions of department operations, costs and solutions have — in the past year — triggered heated opposition from the firefighters union.
Union leaders launched an aggressive advertising campaign when the county proposed reducing staffing for each of nine rural fire stations from three firefighters to two.
The proposed staffing reductions — which were scheduled to occur in January — would have saved between $2 million and $3 million by reducing the need to fill spots with firefighters working overtime shifts.
Alsop released information showing the stations that would be affected by the cut averaged only one-sixth the number of annual calls other county stations faced — most of which were emergency aid calls.
Those nine stations fought an average of 1.3 fires a month.
But union leaders claimed the move would make the firefighters and the public less safe.
Alsop agreed to a temporary halt in the staffing reduction while the county and union entered talks. He said Thursday that the plan to reduce staffing is off the table for the foreseeable future.
“That’s on hold,” Alsop said. “I don’t see us moving forward with that in the short term as a courtesy (to) the fire union.”
What the union and county are currently talking about, Alsop said, is how to reduce the amount of overtime earned by firefighters.
It’s a conversation the county is having with all county unions, he said.
“This is not about eliminating overtime. It’s about eliminating overtime that the county is paying over and above what is required by law,” Alsop said.
That discussion will proceed on a parallel course with the forensic examination of Fire Department operations, he said, though the issue of overtime costs will certainly be examined by the consultants.
Recent county compensation records submitted to the state by Kern County Auditor Mary Bedard show that Kern’s firefighters are — by far — the most highly compensated contingent of employees in the county.
And overtime costs are a major part of that.
Firefighters were 119 of the top 200 county wage earners in 2016. The department with the next-largest contingent of earners was the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, with 24 employees.
The firefighters who earned the most money did so by working overtime. In many cases, their overtime earnings were more than their base pay.
NO RESULTS UNTIL FALL
The county still has an operational contract with the fire union, Alsop said, so talks about how to address the overtime situation will continue for at least several more months.
If supervisors approve the operational audit on the agenda Tuesday, he said, the county won’t expect a report until fall.
That’s not great for the county. It means the $9.1 million structural deficit in the Fire Department won’t be fixed in the budget that is supposed to take the county to June 2018.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a position where we’re going to have to use one-time money for the second year in a row to address their structural deficit,” Alsop said.
That means using county reserves, a move he doesn’t like. But the hope is that the report from International City/County Management Association will give the county hard numbers from which it can make the needed changes.
Supervisor Leticia Perez said she’s talked to the fire union and it supports the investigation.
“They believe this is an opportunity for the Fire Department and the public to get on the same page,” she said.
Robinson, the fire union president, disagreed with Perez’s assessment of their talk. “What I told her was it would be a good idea for the entire county to be audited,” he said. “They are targeting the Fire Department specifically. They want to make it about our overtime.”
Perez said she is still hopeful. “This is an opportunity for the Fire Department to communicate with the public through an objective third party,” she said. “It gives the board the ability to be fully informed and be good partners with the Fire Department.”