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Reaction mixed to review of 3 top-paid fire district posts

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By Vicky Gits

A proposal to downsize a top-paid segment of the staff at Evergreen Fire/Rescue received a mixed reception from the audience and five members of the district board at a special meeting May 27.

Board member George Kling led the meeting, because a month ago he initiated the idea of examining certain job descriptions to look for waste or duplication of effort.

About 20 people were in the audience, including the three whose jobs were under discussion. One of the three brought a video camera on a tripod to tape the panel discussion.

The board appeared to possess varying degrees of enthusiasm for the task at hand. Board President Chick Dykeman said he thought the budget was solid, and this is a not a good time to be laying people off.

“I was the only one on the board when we hired Garry (DeJong, the chief),” Dykeman said. “The idea was to run the department on the budget we had. We can’t divide the number of calls into the budget. The public wouldn’t be happy campers. …

“If we are going to cut cost, I’m not sure I want it in the form of human beings. I have a problem in this economy with being critical of paying people too much,” Dykeman said.

The agenda item was labeled “organizational structure,” but the purpose was to review and discuss the merits of three highly paid administrative jobs, with an eye toward future possible economizing.

The idea of reducing the paid staff has been a recurring theme of the fire board’s agenda for the last year or so, although there is no indication that the district faces a revenue shortage in the near future.

In the last several months the board approved the purchase of a new tanker costing $325,000. A new radio system expected to cost $500,000, with half possibly funded by a pending grant, is also in the approval process.

Downsizing on a small scale

A year ago, the board launched a mini-downsizing that included cutting the pay of the finance director and the human resources director. The jobs also became part-time staff jobs and not open-ended consultant jobs on an as-needed basis.

The board voted March 10 to downgrade a vacant, part-time-permanent administrative-assistant position (30 hours a week) to a part-time, maximum six-month position at an annual pay rate of $25,000.

The 2009 budget of $4.1 million pays for 38 employees, 33 full-time and five part-time. Total payroll and benefits constituted $1.8 million in projected expense.

At the April 14 meeting, Kling took up the initiative against escalating payroll with a presentation highlighting the increase in administrative expenses since 2000.

At the time, Kling said he didn’t want to eliminate anybody’s job. He just wants to figure out “what’s necessary versus what’s a luxury.”

He suggested that the communications manager could do more shift-type work while also being the manager of a department.

“Does it make sense to have a supervisor and two dispatchers on duty when there are only five calls per day?” Kling asked May 27.

Currently, scrutiny is being focused on jobs that pay between $53,000 and $84,000 annually.

In the audience were the current occupants of the jobs in question, namely training coordinator Ben Celius, communications manager Deanne McMahan and Nick Boukas, deputy chief of support services and emergency medical service.

The communications manager set up a video camera in the back of the room.

“Why are you doing that?” asked board member George Goldbach.

“Because it’s a public meeting, and I would like to,” Celius said. Although all of the meetings are taped using a voice recorder, it isn’t typical to use a video camera.

Training coordinator

The consensus of the fire chief, board members and volunteer firefighters was the training coordinator job is necessary but had not lived up to its potential. Created a few years ago at the behest of volunteers, the training coordinator was supposed to help volunteers maximize their training opportunities.

“I don’t think it has worked out in any way,” Kling said. “But the (volunteer) officers like the position, and they like the job description.”

“There were expectations. Then things got cloudy,” said firefighter Jeff Ashford.

The chief agreed to refocus the training coordinator’s efforts on the job description created by the Mountain States Employers Council as of December 2005.

Communications manager

The communications manager is hired to supervise and train a team of dispatchers who work around the clock, as well as make sure the radio and telephone systems are well maintained. The person also works with other fire agencies and government agencies.

Kling wondered if it made sense to have two dispatchers on duty 24 hours a day (a total of nine jobs) as well as a supervisor 40 hours a week for an average of five calls a day.

The second dispatcher is to make sure the insurance agencies will give the department the highest rating, which translates into lower insurance rates for homeowners.

“I feel our bureaucracy has grown, and we need to be doing more with less, and I believe in substantial ways,” said Kling, suggesting the communications manager could handle more ordinary dispatch duties as well. “Five years ago the department was substantially smaller, and the growth we’ve had doesn’t justify its size.”

Deputy chief of support services

One of the top jobs in the fire department, the deputy chief of support services and emergency medical services reports to the fire chief and earns $84,000 a year.

DeJong said he created the position to more effectively manage different divisions, hear their complaints and improve communications.

“When I got here everybody reported to the chief,” he said. “The idea was to reduce the number of people reporting directly to the chief.”

On the organization chart, the communications manager, IT coordinator, training coordinator and vehicle maintenance people report to the deputy chief, who reports to the chief.

According to the chief’s list of job duties, the deputy chief also handles cell phone contracts, which Kling thought could be done by someone on a lower level.

A couple of people said the cell phone issue had been previously assigned to a lower level, but it didn’t work out very well.

“There are meetings (the chief) doesn’t want to go to,” said Nick Boukas, the deputy chief. “The deputy chief runs interference to free the chief for more important things. I realize we only do five calls a day. But we have to look at our services. I feel we have to look at a traditional structure. You can’t look at it in a corporate manner.

“We are more involved in the community. We increased our number of school visits. … We are all stepping up to take care of the (duties required) by the part-time admin position (which was eliminated).”

But Kling seemed unconvinced of the need for both a deputy chief and a chief.

“We went from no chief to two in a short period of time,” he said, referring to the period before the department hired Joel Janov as its second paid chief ever.

“You have to put a harness on it somehow,” said board member Charles Simons.

“We built stations with no money before. Everybody here is still floating on the same pendulum while others are cutting salaries by 10 percent,” said board member Jeff Dedisse.

Kling said he thought the main achievement of the meeting was getting the training coordinator job “redirected.” He said he didn’t have a future plan or next step in mind other than to keep making sure the department is making the most of its resources.