Editor’s note: This is part two of an article detailing the El Dorado County Fire District’s recent problems. Part one ran in the April 5 Mountain Democrat.
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Distrust in El Dorado County Fire District Chief Bruce Lacher bubbled over in May of 2012 when 94 percent of the firefighter’s union membership gave him a vote of no confidence.
Lucas Shepard, who was president of the firefighters union at the time, said initially they were told by Chief Lacher that concessions would have to be made because the district was $500,000 short due to a decline in property taxes. He said the union came back with a concession package that included a pay cut along with members paying a part of PERS and their health benefits. He said the cost of the concessions varied from between $800 to $1,800 per individual. “We thought we were doing our part,” he said.
Later the union was told that additional concessions were needed and sooner because of the district’s dire finances. “We didn’t know at first that there was a huge deficit,” he said. “We didn’t know we were $1.6 million in the hole. There were no red flags in those previous years.”
At that point, he and other union members went to the county Auditor-Controller’s Office to get what he described as an “education on the district’s books.” He said it was then that they found out that at the same time they were being asked to take a cut, the chief and his subordinates were receiving raises.
According to Shepard, Lacher received a 30 percent raise over the five years of his contract plus healthy deferred compensation contributions by the district. It was a pretty sweet deal,” he said. “It was plain why he didn’t want anyone to know what he had. He was getting raises while we were taking cuts.”
Shepard said it was common for Lacher and the other battalion chiefs to take time off but not count it as vacation so they could cash it out at the end of the year. “Why shouldn’t they? Nobody was watching,” he said, claiming that as a result the district was paying out tens of thousands of dollars in “unused vacation time” every year.
Shepard went on to say that Lacher had planned to retire in March and use his vacation time between the time he went on leave in October and when he retired. But instead he was still being paid his full salary. He said Lacher has since filed a Workers’ Compensation claim, which would result in protecting 50 percent of his income from taxes.
“This guy ruins a seven-station fire department in less than four to five years,” Shepard said. “He’s going to make $180,000 a year for the rest of his life plus full medical for him and his family. He got all his deferred compensation … and he’s going to get off scot-free. Plus he’s suing the district for stress and he’s the fire chief. And until it’s resolved, we have to keep him on the books.
“Lacher had the board of directors wrapped around his finger. I absolutely blame Lacher and the board for lacking the backbone to ask the tough questions. Lacher is continuing to drain and abuse the system that did nothing but pad his pockets and take care of him and his family for 30 years and look at how he’s leaving the place.”
Since the revelation last October of the $1.6 million deficit, the district has hired CPA Michael Ocenosak of Terrie Prod’hon to keep the board and staff informed when expenses and revenues deviate from what is budgeted.
He said the district was in the red for a simple reason: “They spent more money than they got. Their revenues dropped off severely, but no adjustments to expenses were made.”
According to Ocenosak, in 2009-10, revenue was $1.7 million below budget; in 2010-11 it was $2 million; in 2011-12 it was $2.58 million. By 2011-12 they had no reserves left in the general fund and they had to start taking money from other areas to cover the deficit.
Ocenosak said the chief was also not reporting to the board that property taxes had dropped significantly and that expenses needed to be curtailed.
According to Shepard and others, that’s because Lacher wasn’t actually doing the books. They claim a former chief was actually preparing the yearly budget.
Another issue was a new accounting and financial reporting provision (Government Accounting Standards Board 45) that requires employers to measure and report long-term retiree liabilities such as health care. Ocenosak said the district always paid the health care costs of retirees on a pay-as-you-go basis. “However as a result of GASB 45, they recognized there was a long-term liability that needed to be addressed,” he said.
Since the revelations about the $1.6 million deficit last year, the district has taken steps to bring its budget into balance. Two chiefs were given early retirement in return for payouts of $50,000 each. There were concessions by the union, which Shepard said came to $600,000. The district also settled what it owed the Joint Powers Authority (JPA) last December for a little over half a million dollars.
As a result of all these cost-cutting measures, according to Ocenosak, the district may actually have a small reserve at the end of the fiscal year as long as it doesn’t have any unexpected expenses or big fires that eat it up.
The list of those still angry about what happened to EDCFD under Chief Lacher is a long one. And though progress is being made in setting things right again, there are still a number of issues still up in the air.
District employee Sheryl Calfee has since filed a claim against the district with the Fair Employment and Housing Commission as well as with Workers’ Compensation. Her husband said she may also sue the district.
Since last November the board has added two new members and is now receiving real-time financial information on a regular basis.
The district is also in a much more stable financial position than it was last year, although property taxes are projected to be flat in the coming fiscal year.
According to action taken at the most recent EDCFD board meeting, consideration is being given to have Cal Fire run the district. Board members asked Acting Fire Chief Mike Hardy to put out a request for proposal (RFP) to CalFire to find out what it would cost them to run the district and at what level of service. Hardy said he would be bringing that information back to the board at its next meeting on April 18.
Hardy said the board made it very clear that no decision had been made but they wanted that option available to them, given the district’s ongoing budget difficulties.
Meanwhile former Lacher, who left the job in September, continues to draw his full salary of $174,960 using sick leave. He has also filed a Workers’ Compensation claim, saying workplace stress is the source of his injury.
Lacher was contacted regarding a comment but was unavailable at press time.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.