Will regional fire authority unravel?

01/31/2014 6:32 PM

01/31/2014 10:38 PM

The Modesto Regional Fire Authority could unravel some three years after Modesto, Stanislaus County and Salida merged their fire agencies to create it.

Longtime MRFA board member Tom Burns said he does not expect the authority to last beyond its current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Burns represented the Salida Fire Protection District on the MRFA board until he tendered his resignation this week because of increased responsibilities with his job, including more travel time. Salida board member Mark Brubaker will take Burns’ place on the MRFA board.

Burns said the Salida Fire Protection District is developing plans on how it would provide fire protection services for its community in the event MRFA dissolves.

He said his resignation is not related to the issues surrounding MRFA Chief Randall Bradley, whose supporters say has been asked by the MRFA board to resign. Bradley – who has been chief for about six months after coming here from a Bay Area fire agency – remained chief as of Friday.

But MRFA board member Dave Lopez, who also serves on the Modesto City Council, said the MRFA board will meet next week to discuss Bradley’s future with the agency. The board has met three times in closed session since November to discuss Bradley.

The three-person board is composed of one representative from each of its partner agencies. Supervisor Bill O’Brien represents Stanislaus County on the MRFA board.

Bradley has not returned several emails and phone messages left for him this week. Burns, Lopez and O’Brien said they cannot comment on Bradley because it’s a personnel matter.

Bradley earns $157,000 annually. The Modesto Bee has filed a California Public Records Act request with MRFA for any correspondence between Bradley and his representatives and MRFA regarding settlements or payouts he would receive in exchange for leaving the fire authority.

Some of Bradley’s supporters say he’s been undermined by those who supported another candidate for the top job. The supporters say Burns and O’Brien wanted Dale Skiles, an MRFA manager who served as acting chief last year, for the top job. O’Brien has said those assertions are not true.

Skiles, who was appointed county fire warden and assistant director of the Office of Emergency Services by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in August, has not returned emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Burns said some of the Salida Fire Protection District’s concerns include Modesto wanting more control over the fire agency. MRFA has a $31.9 million budget and about 160 employees, according to its finance department. Modesto provides $24.5 million of the fire agency’s funding.

“We are putting in the lion’s share,” Lopez said. “And we have one vote out of the three on the board as far as decision-making goes. It seems a little out of balance.”

Lopez said he expects the City Council this month to discuss how well MRFA has worked for the city and its residents and what steps Modesto may want to consider.

O’Brien said Modesto has been raising concerns over several months over what it terms governance issues related to MRFA, but he said city officials have not provided any details or proposals on modifying the agreement that formed the fire authority.

Burns and Lopez said whether MRFA continues to exist or not, they expect that greater cooperation will continue to occur among local fire agencies. Lopez said it would be a natural fit for Modesto to work more closely with Ceres and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.

The authority was formed in January 2011 when Modesto, the Stanislaus County fire warden’s office and the Salida Fire Protection District entered into a joint-powers agreement. The agreement says the authority can be dissolved upon the consent of the three board members and their governing boards.

The agreement also says that upon dissolution, the three agencies shall be given sufficient time to establish their own fire protection services.

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