The Board of Supervisors is poised to spend $150,000 examining how the Kern County Fire Department operates, a rare move aimed at addressing what’s been a substantial drain on the county’s finances in recent years.

Money — or more specifically a $9.1 million lack of it — is powering the move.

That’s the gap between the money available to fund the Fire Department and what the agency spends each year. The supervisors will be asked to approve a $150,000 sole-source contract with International City/County Management Association to conduct the investigation.

The group will be tasked with a number of jobs between now and the end of 2017, according to a letter from County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop to supervisors:

  • Examine the department’s organization and culture.
  • Compare how the department operates to how the best fire departments in the nation run.
  • Recommend a new management structure.
  • Do a forensic analysis of how much work the department actually does.
  • Figure out how to staff department operations in the most efficient manner.

“This is a positive thing and it’s not meant to point fingers and say anyone’s doing anything wrong,” Alsop said. “It’s good management. I think it will benefit everybody.“

Kern County Firefighters President Derek Robinson had a different view of the plan.

He said negotiations between the union and the county haven’t gone so well and that, when the union refused to give in to the county’s demand for changes to overtime rules the audit was brought up.

“They wouldn’t entertain anything we put on the table,” Robinson said. “At the end, Ryan (Alsop) brought this up and it was basically taken by everybody as a threat. This reeks of retaliation for us not going for changes to (overtime calculations).”

He said he plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting to oppose hiring the contractor, which he said is not an impartial third-party company.

In the end, he said, the audit won’t change firefighters’ minds.

“You can study all you want, the guys aren’t going to vote for this,” he said.

THE DEBATE UNTIL NOW

Similar discussions of department operations, costs and solutions have — in the past year — triggered heated opposition from the firefighters union.

Union leaders launched an aggressive advertising campaign when the county proposed reducing staffing for each of nine rural fire stations from three firefighters to two.

The proposed staffing reductions — which were scheduled to occur in January — would have saved between $2 million and $3 million by reducing the need to fill spots with firefighters working overtime shifts.

Alsop released information showing the stations that would be affected by the cut averaged only one-sixth the number of annual calls other county stations faced — most of which were emergency aid calls.

Those nine stations fought an average of 1.3 fires a month.

But union leaders claimed the move would make the firefighters and the public less safe.

Alsop agreed to a temporary halt in the staffing reduction while the county and union entered talks. He said Thursday that the plan to reduce staffing is off the table for the foreseeable future.

“That’s on hold,” Alsop said. “I don’t see us moving forward with that in the short term as a courtesy (to) the fire union.”

OVERTIME COSTS

What the union and county are currently talking about, Alsop said, is how to reduce the amount of overtime earned by firefighters.

It’s a conversation the county is having with all county unions, he said.

“This is not about eliminating overtime. It’s about eliminating overtime that the county is paying over and above what is required by law,” Alsop said.

That discussion will proceed on a parallel course with the forensic examination of Fire Department operations, he said, though the issue of overtime costs will certainly be examined by the consultants.

Recent county compensation records submitted to the state by Kern County Auditor Mary Bedard show that Kern’s firefighters are — by far — the most highly compensated contingent of employees in the county.

And overtime costs are a major part of that.

Firefighters were 119 of the top 200 county wage earners in 2016. The department with the next-largest contingent of earners was the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, with 24 employees.

The firefighters who earned the most money did so by working overtime. In many cases, their overtime earnings were more than their base pay.

NO RESULTS UNTIL FALL

The county still has an operational contract with the fire union, Alsop said, so talks about how to address the overtime situation will continue for at least several more months.

If supervisors approve the operational audit on the agenda Tuesday, he said, the county won’t expect a report until fall.

That’s not great for the county. It means the $9.1 million structural deficit in the Fire Department won’t be fixed in the budget that is supposed to take the county to June 2018.

“Unfortunately, we’re in a position where we’re going to have to use one-time money for the second year in a row to address their structural deficit,” Alsop said.

That means using county reserves, a move he doesn’t like. But the hope is that the report from International City/County Management Association will give the county hard numbers from which it can make the needed changes.

Supervisor Leticia Perez said she’s talked to the fire union and it supports the investigation.

“They believe this is an opportunity for the Fire Department and the public to get on the same page,” she said.

Robinson, the fire union president, disagreed with Perez’s assessment of their talk. “What I told her was it would be a good idea for the entire county to be audited,” he said. “They are targeting the Fire Department specifically. They want to make it about our overtime.”

Perez said she is still hopeful. “This is an opportunity for the Fire Department to communicate with the public through an objective third party,” she said. “It gives the board the ability to be fully informed and be good partners with the Fire Department.”

(11) comments

Sarah Gonzales
Sarah Gonzales

Quit cutting the fire department. They are already understaffed as it is. These guys are one of the only useful services left in the county. I'm about ready to move out.

bn93312
bn93312

All 3 prior comments are on point. Union representatives and KCFD Chiefs only offer the same old narrative. (i.e. the public will be less safe and understaffed according to NFPA standards) Maybe KCFD's brightest and finest should bring real pragmatic solutions instead of just sympathetic public safety rhetoric. All budgets are cyclical at times, private sector and public sector alike, but public sector employees have little to no compassion for the taxpayer who funds the over-compensation overtime and exorbitant pension benefits. I am tired of trying to fund public households and provide for the security and happiness of my family too. Wake up Kern County.

JohnKern
JohnKern

Hi bn93312. That narrative is usually used because it is true. The quality of an employee is directly proportional to the salary in most cases. The term "you get what you pay for." So let me pose the question: if you or your son or daughter were in cardiac arrest would you want an $10.00 per hour employee running the operation? Or a highly trained, best of the best (i.e. top 1% of 10,000 job applicants) running the show. Because sheriffs and fire are responsible for life safety and property protection it is important we pay for good employees. Some of Kern's best employees are leaving for higher paying departments. This is because Kern County Fire and Sheriffs are some of the lowest compensated in the State for their job position. I believe this job should be held in high regard, and you get what you pay for.

Lastly, to put it in perspective: The paltry amount of your own personal tax dollars that get spent toward police and fire is absurd to question. Here is you $5 refund for what you paid to first responders. Money well spent to ensure the best care for yourself and your family.

Jpb1055
Jpb1055

Let's hope this audit will come up with a comprehensive solution of the obvious waste of taxpayer money. The culture of County Fire is first on the audit list and needs changing. There seems to be a feeling of arrogance and entitlement when it comes to salaries and what they actually do.

JohnKern
JohnKern

Waste of tax payer money? Do you realize how much of your personal tax dollars actually go to the fire department. I believe this is not a fact most people consider. The majority of the funding comes from large business, not personal taxes. The average Kern County citizen (property owner) only pays approximately $5-$20 towards police and fire. I don't know about you but for $5-$20 I think I get pretty good service, or at least insurance against tragedy happening to me.

I think we should stop beating these guys up and pay them what they deserve. They are the lowest payed in the state. Think about that. Should that be?

Do you believe it is arrogance and entitlement that makes Kern County employees want to be paid in line with the job description. Kern County Fire and Sheriff are some of the lowest paid Fire and Sheriff agencies in the State of California. Do you th

Trudy Oslow
Trudy Oslow

Why don't you become a firefighter jpb1055 if you think it's that easy and such a great job?

Churchillis1
Churchillis1

There is a waiting list to be hired as a firefighter. In the private sector, that is a prime indicator that the job is highly sought after and likely over compensated.

But we are never allowed to question whether or not a government employee is overpaid. We the people are just required to cough up the cash.

Bluecollar
Bluecollar

A district in Illinois went with a private company for fire protection , maybe that would be an option?

JohnKern
JohnKern

Bluecollar. I advise you to do some research into this. Let me ask you, Do you want a private company (driven by profit) to be responsible for putting out your house fire or perform CPR on your loved one? I don't think thats a good idea. The cost to use those drugs on your heart attack might cost too much, or putting a firefighter inside your burning home might cost too much for insurance so they will just stay outside and put water on it. Training is too expensive so cut that. Pay bare minimum wages for substandard employees. There is a reason that 99% of fire departments are government based. It is what works. Check with the citizens of that illinois town in about 10 years and see if they're happy. I would wager theyre not.

Bluecollar
Bluecollar

Maybe a program similar to Tulare county fire? I hear it's economically efficient.

JohnKern
JohnKern

Yes Church, there is a waiting list for this job. Just as there is for all jobs. Is that a bad thing? Competition is great. It brings us the best employees in that particular field. I would rather have people beating down the doors to get this job. For public safety I want the best of the best. And I personally think we should pay for this. Not everyone can be a firefighter and having lived in several different counties and states you don't want to see the quality of police and fire in other areas. They're terrible. My interaction with the fire department has been nothing but wonderful. the sheriff has been great too, but since their pay and benefits have been getting dwindled down I have noticed a drop off in quality. Do we want that to happen in fire too?

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