The resignation of its fire chief resulted in the calling of a special board meeting on Sunday of the Mosquito Fire Protection District.
A few days earlier Fire Chief Tom Stuart had resigned, apparently due to an impasse in contract negotiations.
Board Chairman John Moalli told the roughly 40 residents in attendance that the reason for the meeting was to hold a closed session to discuss finding a replacement chief, with the board open to different options in filling the position. The board also used the meeting to cover other topics.
Thanking Stuart for his service to the district, Moalli began by talking about the district’s finances, saying last year revenues for the district were about $300,000 but expenses were $475,000. With the district $175,000 in the hole, Moalli said the district was only able to cover it with carryover funds from the previous year and by using $85,000 of reserves.
“But the revenue stream for this district is not sustainable, which is why the board has been working with El Dorado County to try and revamp the way rural fire districts are funded in the future,” he said.
Moalli noted that district revenue comes from two main sources, property taxes and a fire assessment, with the latter being one of the highest in the county. Residents also have to pay the Cal Fire assessment even though the district doesn’t get a penny of it. The district can attract additional revenue by supplying a strike team when fires arise elsewhere, he added, but it leaves the district vulnerable in case a local fire breaks out.
Moalli reported the district will be receiving some funding from the county as a result of its recent decision to bail out some of the rural fire districts. Mosquito will receive $68,000 for the next two years. But the money can only be spent on one additional full-time firefighter.
“It’s a patch for the next two years,” he said, noting the district chose to apply for additional personnel rather than equipment. At the same time, he said, “We are one piece of equipment away from going broke and a lot of rural fire districts are in the same position.”
Mosquito currently has two full-time employees along with the position of fire chief, which is now vacant. Moalli noted it is difficult to attract staff when they can only pay so much. The board plans to have four full-time staff once the fire chief’s position and the position paid for by the county are filled.
Long-term, rural fire districts want to change the allocation of tax dollars in the county, said Moalli, adding there is a wide disparity in pay and benefits between districts. The district is also working on developing models for firefighting in urban, semi-urban and rural settings, he said, with the models affecting levels of staffing, equipment and compensation.
Members of the audience then threw different questions at the board, with one person worried about not having a fire chief at the beginning of fire season. However, even with no acting fire chief, the board assured the audience that the district has someone in command at all times.
When asked if Stuart was negotiating for more money than what was in the budget, Moalli refused to answer directly. Instead he stated the job announcement for chief has a certain salary range and that’s what caused the impasse.
Stuart then got up and read a prepared statement, saying he was angry at some of the comments that had been posted on a local Website. He also accused the board of leaking information about the contract negotiations, saying those should have remained confidential.
“I’m angry I have to defend myself,” he said, going on to question the board’s integrity and saying he hadn’t signed the contract that contained the district’s latest offer.
“In January, I removed my name from the list of those applying for the position of chief and gave my two-week notice,” he said. Stuart said he stayed on after being asked to do so by several board members, although claiming one particular board member continued to harass him.
“I had no contract and no full-time benefits during the seven and a half months of my tenure,” he said, adding that he brought a high level of training and leadership to the district. “I gave up retirement to work for you, all without a contract and all without full benefits. I’m the victim not the culprit here.” Stuart closed by saying he preferred “not to work for an organization with this type of board that has allowed this to happen.”
With comments from the audience supporting Stuart as well as the board, the meeting ended with the board adjourning to closed session.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.