El Dorado Hills Fire Department board incumbents John Hidahl and Jim Hartley are running for reelection on a track record of budget balancing, fire house building and prudent fiscal policy making that they say have created one of the top emergency response agencies in the state.
Hidahl brings 28 years of board service stretching back to 1981, along with long-standing volunteer involvement in El Dorado Hills regulatory committees dealing with land use and county governance. He led the 2005 cityhood effort with his friend and fellow activist Norm Rowett.
Hartley has served on the board for 12 years. The retired Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District assistant chief was an active participant in the 17-district consolidation that created “Sac Metro,” experience that could become increasingly relevant as the county’s rural fire districts grapple with revenue shortfalls and reduced services.
The incumbent candidates have seen their policies and fiscal acumen challenged in a 2011 Grand Jury report and again during a July Tea Party presentation, both of which became fodder for their critics, including the three challengers for their two board seats.
Hidahl and Hartley take unabashed pride in the organization they’ve help build. Three of the four current fire stations were built with both on the board.
A fourth fire station, the planned replacement of the original “volunteer” station on Francisco Boulevard, is scheduled for 2013.
As recent evidence of their leadership, they point to last year’s unprecedented revenue shortfall, resulting in a preliminary budget that was upside down by more than $2 million.
Their board also had to cope with the expiration and renegotiation of a union contract that included hard-wired staffing levels their historically tough chief, Brian Veerkamp, had publicly called excessive on several occasions the prior year.
That episode and others angered their equally historically strong firefighters union. Veerkamp’s subsequent retirement added a chief replacement to the board’s 2011 to-do list, along with cutting $2 million in spending, reducing staff and renegotiating the union contract with potentially hostile labor leaders, all of whom were highly respected firefighters.
Hidahl and Hartley said their board did all that and more, by eliciting the help of both internal candidates for the chief position, Battalion Chief Dave Roberts and Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb. Rather than confronting the leadership of El Dorado Hills Professional Firefighters Local 3604 — Tom Anselmo, Dave Brady and Matt Echhardt — the board asked for their help solving the problem in total.
They formed a hybrid Budget and Negotiation Committee, with Hidahl and Director Barbara Wynn representing the board. They brought in respected former Folsom Fire Chief and El Dorado Hills resident Dan Haverty to oversee the BANC.
The board eventually produced a new chief, a balanced budget, a new memorandum of understanding and a new atmosphere of cooperative decision making.
In a budget constrained era, with service cuts, layoffs and station closures commonplace in emergency service agencies, “We downsized without layoffs, station closures or brownouts,” said Hidahl, who concedes a lone service reduction from the 2011 negotiation: engine company staffing dropped from four to three.
The committee achieved staff reductions at both the “line” and “chief” level, all through attrition, resulting in a leaner organization that regained the confidence of its firefighters and, importantly, its volunteers.
The resulting labor agreement kept salaries flat, allowed the use of “floaters” to reduce overtime and also required a 3 percent employee CalPERS contribution for the first time.
They respond to their critics by pointing to 49 years of balanced budgets and the elephant in any room where El Dorado Hills finances are discussed, a reserve fund that totaled $21.9 million as of the 2011 annual report.
They argue that the mammoth reserve fund wouldn’t have happened without the fiscally prudent policies of their boards in good times and bad.
The reserve was accumulated during the housing boom, the gilded era between 1998 and 2008 when district population doubled. “We kept funding the reserve, even while we were building stations and buying apparatus,” said Hidahl.
During the subsequent fall to earth, their boards nurtured the reserve, they say, allowing only minor withdrawals while the total assessed value of El Dorado Hills property plummeted 14 percent, a whopping $1.1 billion between 2008 and 2011, accompanied by a corresponding $2.1 million dive in the district’s life-blood property tax revenue.
John Hidahl is a mechanical engineer by training and a systems engineer by trade. In El Dorado Hills he’s been a tireless activist in the thorny details of land use and local governance.
Hidahl won his first fire board seat in 1981 after spearheading a local bond measure to replace undersized water mains and hydrants in his woodsy Lakehills neighborhood, personally working out the hydrology to ensure adequate water pressure for fire suppression.
At the time there were just two fire stations in El Dorado Hills. Most firefighters were volunteers. The district soon transitioned to paid firefighters, a move that can quash the volunteer organization, Hartley added.
But that didn’t happen in El Dorado Hills. “We made sure they got some time on the truck, and maintained active recruitment and training programs,” he said. “Volunteers are critical … they essentially double the capacity of the organization.”
El Dorado Hills retains a powerful and popular volunteer program.
“We elected not to hire new people, but to pay overtime, which is cheaper, to keep our engines and fire houses fully staffed,” he said. “Other districts periodically brown out or just flat out close stations.”
“Chief Roberts recently surveyed similar districts in the area, and our base salaries and benefits are absolutely in line with Folsom, Granite Bay and Sac Metro,” said Hidahl.
“And we’ve held the line lately,” added Hartley, who dismissed the reported 9 percent that Folsom firefighters pay to CalPERS. “They were given a comparable salary increase first, whereas our guys picked up 3 percent and haven’t had a raise in four years.”
Both incumbents see operations budgets continuing to tighten as the public demands reform of salaries and benefits, with recently enacted state CalPERS reforms leading the way.
“But we never want to become a training ground for other agencies,” said Hidahl. “Hiring and training are too expensive.”
Hidahl was on the board that established the reserve policy in the late 1990s, and takes particular pride in its astounding ascension to $21.9 million and counting.
“At the time we had about a million in reserves and an $8 million operating budget,” he said. “We weren’t comfortable that some extreme event wouldn’t wipe us out.”
The intent, he said, was to create an “emergency carryover” of at least one year of operations spending.
“A reserve fund like this doesn’t just happen,” said Hartley. “It takes planning and discipline over many years.”