The distortions, half-truths, innuendos and all-out lies that were provided to the Mountain Democrat for the article “The chief takes a walk” were from individuals who are trying to appear as heroes but come across, to those who know the facts, as undisciplined, spoiled children who failed to get what they wanted, or followers who can’t think for themselves.
The implications that Chief Bruce Lacher and the Board of Directors ignored the property tax decline is without merit. The last Firefighters Union contract called for a 5 percent cost-of-living raise in January 2010. Chief Lacher and the board had extensive deliberations as to whether it was prudent to award the raise or delay it. At the time it appeared that the district had in excess of $1 million in reserves and contingency funds. This decision was to honor the contractual obligation and utilize contingency funds to award the pay raise. This was during the same year that social security recipients and military retirees received “zero” cost-of-living raises. In addition, the 5 percent brought the total cost-of-living increases given to the union members during the previous eight years to 34 percent.
The next financial bullet to hit the district was fired by the JPA, which is the organization that manages the ambulances within the county. There is a system in place called “loan labor” that requires compensation from the district to the JPA when an ambulance-assigned individual is utilized on a district fire engine. The JPA, in 2011, presented the district with a claim for over $700,000 in loan labor bills that were not paid by the district during the previous three to five-year period. This of course begs the question as to how the JPA staff, the county health department staff, the district staff and the County Auditor could miss this amount of unpaid bills. This issue was settled with the district paying the JPA in excess of a half-million dollars.
The monies paid to the JPA and the declining property tax revenues were part of the issues facing Chief Lacher in early 2012 as he tried to compile the current budget. The board directed Chief Lacher to evaluate what it would take to balance the budget without again reaching into the contingency fund. Chief Lacher estimated approximately $600,000 would be needed to balance the budget and not close or brownout stations. Until that time the district paid 100 percednt of all employee pay and benefits. This included the 9 percent contribution to the PERS retirement system that is usually borne by the individual employee as in other state and county organizations. Chief Lacher alerted the union officers to the fact that, to avoid closing stations and laying off personnel, individuals may have to start contributing to their retirement system and their medical benefits as done in other agencies and in most civilian organizations. The union’s response to this possibility was to present Chief Lacher with the infamous vote of no-confidence letter. At the same time Director Dennis Edwards and I, who were serving as board representatives on the negotiating committee, were informed by the president of the union, Lucas Shepard, that the union would be running two of “their” candidates against us in the forthcoming election.
The Board of Directors in response to the loan labor billing fiasco and other financial issues directed Chief Lacher to secure the services of a part-time CPA to review and make recommendations concerning the district’s financial activities. Michael Ocenosak, CPA, was retained and within a very short time, after being alerted by the County Auditor to a major fund discrepancy, identified and informed Chief Lacher and, subsequently the board, that approximately $1 million identified as reserve and contingency money and shown as a carryover in the budget did not exist! It seems that some years earlier funds were transferred from one account to another but continued to be reflected as available in both accounts. Annually the district hires an auditing firm to conduct an audit of its books. In addition, with the exception of a small petty cash fund, all financial transactions of the district flow through the County Auditor’s office. Again, it begs the question as to how could multiple audits, the County Auditor’s office, and the district’s accounting and billing staff not identify, over a period of years, a million dollars that was reflected in the budget but did not exist!
It is unfortunate that the Grand Jury is not available. Absent a Grand Jury investigation, I would strongly advise that an independent third party be obtained to investigate the above irregularities and identify the staff members and/or procedures in the district’s reports, accounting and bill payment areas responsible for the problems. This effort would be used to ensure that the errors are not repeated in the future and to gather the facts required to, if necessary, terminate or reassign employees who did not know their job or did not do their job. If, in the future, a knowledgeable, professional staff cannot be assembled, then perhaps the district should recruit a chief with a Ph.D. in accounting and hope that he or she knows a little something about the fire service.
Currently the district is working very closely with Mr. Ocenosak to maintain a balanced budget, provide greater visibility and financial details to the current chief and members of the board, reinstate funds borrowed from other accounts that were used to balance the current budget and rebuild a viable contingency fund. That is not to say that the district is not facing future problems. Although the union has made concessions in terms of its members’ retirement and medical benefits, its current contract expires on the Dec. 31 and contains provisions for a potential 3 percent cost-of-living raise. There will be future savings as a function of Chief Lacher and two other chief officers retiring, however the three remaining battalion chiefs have been promoted to division chiefs with a 10 percent pay raise and have a contract that also expires at the end of this December. (It is important to note that the reduction in the number of chief officers and the 10 percent pay raise for the remaining chiefs was the union’s idea to save funds and avoid future union concessions and/or provide future rank and file pay raises.) In addition, the promoted chiefs informed the board during a recent board meeting that they, in the future, will also be represented by a union. We can only hope, for the district and the taxpayers’ sake, that the next contract negotiations will be conducted by union representatives who have matured and have learned to put “service before self” and “mission before money.”
The complaints by union members and others that Chief Lacher and the other chiefs should return the contractual raises they received in the last few years is interesting. I am not aware that the individuals complaining or any other employees have offered to return the 5 percent raises they were given in January of 2010 that was funded by the invisible contingency fund. I also wonder how far a sergeant or lieutenant in the military would get complaining about their pay as compared to that of the colonel or general?
Theodore Roosevelt once gave a speech that, in part, said, “It is not the critic who counts, but the one who is actually in the arena.” The chief and/or the commander who is actually “in the arena” often times has to walk that fine line between mission and morale. I have known a number of outstanding commanders during my military career that could pull it off. I would rank Chief Lacher as among the best of that group. It is unfortunate that the union leadership who pushed the letter of no-confidence and continue to take mean-spirited shots at Chief Lacher have such short memories. Chief Lacher consistently cared about the rank and file whether it was supporting pay raises to gain parity with other districts, making the current two-day-on-four-day-off work schedule function or obtaining grants to outfit the troops with the latest and best safety equipment. There are many outstanding people who work for the district that are dedicated to their time-honored profession. These are the people who know the difference between a brotherhood of firefighters and a “union” brotherhood. I would hope that those of you among this number who will put on chief’s rank someday and others who think for themselves are mature enough to stop the pot shots and acknowledge Chief Lacher’s distinguished career with a heartfelt thanks for a job well done and a wish for a long and healthy retirement.
Tom Mahach is a retired Air Force colonel and previously served 12 years on the board for the El Dorado County Fire Protection District.