For an agency with a $10 million budget finding a $1.6 million shortfall is a big ouch. It is 16 percent of the operating budget. The agency with the deficit is the El Dorado County Fire Protection District, one of the biggest in the county. It’s also worrisome that the board president attributed some of the shortfall to a bookkeeping boo-boo.
The county auditor, however, was not aware of any accounting errors by the fire district. But he did note that the district has been spending more than it takes in for about three years, which indicates the chief and the board didn’t act with alacrity when property tax revenue began sliding as the recession hit and foreclosures swamped housing prices.
In the face of the $1.6 milion deficit the board asked for concessions from the fighters union. Friday the union announced an agreement. The firefighters will pay all of their 9 percent of employees’ pension costs. We commend the union for agreeing to this. That is five years ahead of the deadline outlined in the new state pension reform legislation. Additionally, the union members will be paying 20 percent of their health care costs. This brings them in line with private industry.
The firefighters put the value of this at a 11-15 percent take-home pay reduction.
The district and the union have set the standard. We urge other fire agencies to follow this example.
How much of a dent this will make in the deficit will become clearer at the district’s next board meeting. The customary cure for financial problems is to hire a financial officer. Generally speaking fire chiefs know how to run a fire department, but don’t necessarily know how to read a financial statement and get down in the weeds of a budget.
Instead of a financial officer, we would suggest instead a chief administrative officer who would have overall responsibility for the bill payments, contracting, Workers’ Compensation, employee relations, payroll and budget preparation. The chief would be responsible for supervising firefighters, equipment, training and staffing assignments.
One way or another the El Dorado County Fire Protection District needs to upgrade its financial supervision.