Stanislaus Consolidated reels from money, staffing problems. Oakdale wants changes

What to do if there’s a fire in your home

If you have a fire in your home, the advice is simple, according to Sacramento Fire Department: Get out, stay out, call 911. Don’t try to put the fire out yourself. And never go back into a building on fire. Have a plan and practice with your family.
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If you have a fire in your home, the advice is simple, according to Sacramento Fire Department: Get out, stay out, call 911. Don’t try to put the fire out yourself. And never go back into a building on fire. Have a plan and practice with your family.

The city of Oakdale, and the rural fire district for the surrounding area, are seeking major changes in their agreements with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, after citing the district’s financial situation and the cost ramifications of a labor contract with Consolidated firefighters.

Oakdale and Oakdale Fire Protection District each are asking for a six-month extension on their respective fire service agreements with Stanislaus Consolidated, which expire June 30. The extensions would mainly allow time for exploring a joint powers authority.

Under one option, a JPA composed of the city, Oakdale fire and Stanislaus Consolidated could be created, giving the Oakdale agencies seats on the board and authority to vote on administrative decisions, budget approvals and labor contracts.

Right now, Oakdale leaders complain they have no say in budget decisions, labor and management issues that affect the city.

Faced with their own budget challenges more than five years ago, the city and Oakdale fire district sought a service agreement with Stanislaus Consolidated to provide fire protection in the city, Valley Home, Knights Ferry and other rural areas in eastern Stanislaus County.

This past week, the city and Oakdale district told Stanislaus Consolidated they would like an extension on their agreements subject to eight conditions, including:

  • hiring an outside firm to assess the fiscal health of Stanislaus Consolidated;

  • getting the city and Oakdale fire district involved with ratifying any new contract with unionized employees;

  • supporting more interns to increase personnel at fire stations;

  • ensuring that administrative staff are available for serving the two agencies.

The city and Oakdale fire district asked Consolidated either to accept or reject the conditions by Feb. 15. Consolidated board members hashed over the conditions at a special meeting Thursday evening, discussing each item with Oakdale officials in the audience.

Board Chairwoman Susan Zanker said the recent requests from Oakdale had prompted board members to start researching fire service JPAs like those in San Mateo County and Los Angeles. Zanker was not sure if Consolidated could commit to the JPA concept by mid-February.

Exploratory work on JPAs can can take years, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Zanker noted.

In the event Stanislaus Consolidated is not able to live with terms of the six-month extensions, Oakdale could start a process of hiring back Oakdale firefighters who joined Consolidated in 2014. Nine fire personnel from the city and nine from the Oakdale rural district switched over to Consolidated five years ago and three were added to bolster the force in the Oakdale area.

The stakes are high for the three entities. Oakdale expects to spend $2.4 million for the fire service this year, while its agreement with Consolidated requires Oakdale fire district to shell out $2 million annually.

Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer outlined the city’s concerns at the City Council meeting Jan. 22. He said Consolidated is projected to run a $500,000 deficit in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and could overspend this year’s budget by $2 million.

Whitemyer put a line graph on the screen, showing a steady decline in the district’s fund balance from $9.47 million in 2014-15 to $5 million in 2017-18 and a projected $4 million this year.

The city again cited a lack of administrative leadership at Consolidated, with the district parting ways with four chiefs in 5 1/2 years, leaving the top administrative post vacant for 34 months. City leaders complained they weren’t able to review the employment contract with the newest chief, Michael Whorton, who was promoted in January.

Turnover in other administrative positions has raised questions about human resources, fiscal oversight and risk management responsibilities. Other concerns are a labor contract, which awarded cost-of-living increases of 3 percent annually, and a benefit that allows Consolidated employees to accrue sick leave at twice the rate of other fire agencies in the county, the city said.

The unlimited sick leave accumulated by firefighters is a big liability in the event that multiple employees cash out at the same time, Whitemyer warned. He also cited a midyear report showing overtime costs at $630,000 above budget this year. Tighter rules on employees taking vacation at the same time could reduce those overtime costs, the city manager suggested.

Oakdale leaders still think it’s better for the city and Consolidated to work together on fire service, but “if we don’t have a seat at the table it is not going to work,” Councilman Richard Murdoch said at the June 22 meeting.

Vincent Victorine, a board member for Oakdale fire district, said the agency is beginning a study on the feasibility of a joint powers authority. Various proposals offered by Whitemyer, in a December letter to Consolidated, suggested a simple JPA including the city, Oakdale rural fire and Consolidated.

That arrangement could evolve with an agreement in which Modesto Fire Department handles administrative and management services for the JPA. Another possibility is Modesto, the Oakdale agencies and Consolidated combining in a JPA, with each partner provided seats on the board.

So far, officials from Oakdale and Consolidated have been involved with discussions. Stanislaus County, which appoints three members of the Stanislaus Consolidated board, has been stand-offish about getting deeper into fire service. The other two Consolidated board members are appointed by Riverbank and Waterford.

Consolidated officials said Thursday a JPA was considered before the 2014 agreement with Oakdale was approved and that structure was deemed not in the city’s best interest.

Derek Nichols, president of the union representing Consolidated firefighters, said the labor contract with firefighters seems to become a target when the district comes under scrutiny.

Consolidated Board Member Dave Woods asked if the Oakdale fire district and the city were willing to take on part of a growing unfunded liability for employee pensions.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.