Frustrated by what they felt were troubling examples of disrespect on the part of Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District (SCFPD), Oakdale City Council members discussed the decision to either cut ties or renegotiate the terms of their fire service agreement at the Tuesday, Jan. 22 meeting.
While the vision for the merger of Oakdale City Fire and SCFPD may have been rooted in good intentions, the actual picture has been less than rosy, according to concerns brought to the table by Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer.
The most alarming — said Whitemyer — were financial in nature but were not limited to:
· Fire administration staff
· Budget oversight and financial management
· Lack of transparency during fire chief employment and approval process
· Late financial audit and issues with financial controls
· Concerns with Employee Memorandums of Understanding (MOU)
· Weed Abatement Services — firefighter internship program — administrative overhead charges
“A draft SCFPD 2016-17 Annual Audit Management Letter indicates that the auditor found 12 findings where additional financial controls were needed. The auditor also made 17 other recommendations, which should be cause for concern,” Whitemyer said in his presentation, adding that within his own audit process, usually discovering one finding was cause for disappointment but 12 to 17 was unthinkable.
“The City of Oakdale is concerned because it appears that these normal best management reviews are not a priority for SCFPD,” Whitemyer said. He also added, it does not appear that SCFPD has begun their FY 2017-2018 audit.
Further lending to the discontent between agencies, when Oakdale City staff members have expressed their concerns to SCFPD regarding certain employee issues pertaining to sick leave accruals, vacation cards and overtime hours, these concerns have been summarily ignored but Oakdale has been forced to watch the SCFPD budget bloat as a result.
As an example, Whitemyer provided the council with the following, “The SCFPD December 2018 Budget Report shows that overtime expenditures are over budget by $631,061.34 or 1,012 percent, even though we are only 50 percent through the year.”
Currently, SCFPD is on track to spend $2 million more than budgeted for FY 2018-19.
SCFPD agreed to take on weed abatement for the City of Oakdale but citing lack of staff, they backed out, forcing Oakdale to take on those duties when essentially, Oakdale paid SCFPD for the job.
SCFPD was also supposed to be providing firefighter interns to the City of Oakdale, which they have not.
The turmoil within SCFPD’s administrative branch hasn’t done them any favors either.
With fire chiefs coming and going — either resigning or getting the boot within very short time frames — maintaining any semblance of consistency has been a challenge.
Prior to the recent hire of SCFPD Fire Chief Michael Whorton, the district was without a fire chief for the last 14 months, which created troubling questions for Oakdale, Whitemyer said.
But even the selection process of the fire chief created more bad blood between the two agencies as Oakdale felt they weren’t given a seat at the table.
“City staff was forced to hurriedly review the agreement and discovered language that caused concern,” Whitemyer said. “This concern was shared with the SCFPD Board and a request was made to continue the item to future meetings so that these concerns could be discussed and addressed. The Board didn’t respect the request of its partner agency and approved the agreement despite their concerns. This was an extremely important decision that appears to have been rushed by the SCFPD board. This lack of transparency is very concerning and not appreciated.”
While the emotional response to being disrespected was easy — pull up stakes and leave — Whitemyer cautioned that it was important to proceed with a level head so that the best decision possible for the firefighters and the city could be made. A sentiment Mayor J.R. McCarty echoed when he said, “We want to keep those jobs … the City of Oakdale is happy with the service that we have, we just need to rearrange the administration part and management part…”
Basically, after much discussion it boiled down to two options:
· Extend the current Fire Services Agreement for a defined period with certain amendments; or
· Cut ties with SCFPD and resurrect the Oakdale City Fire Department until such time that a regional fire department could be entertained.
Either decision would be a big one for the City of Oakdale with lasting ramifications but council members, particularly Rich Murdoch, seemed sure that this was the right decision.
“This was the right idea in 2014 but the details that went with it were the wrong details,” Murdoch said. “We don’t have any voting rights, we don’t have any part of decision-making. I think there’s been a lack of transparency, a lack of respect in the way some of their dealings with the City of Oakdale and I think we’re talking about a No Confidence vote with management. One thing I’m not in favor of … is keeping things the way that it is … if we didn’t make a change it would just burn itself out.”
Councilmember Christopher Smith agreed with Murdoch, citing historical financial and administrative problems on behalf of SCFPD, saying, “I see this burning out like a campfire.”
While Murdoch was in favor of pulling up stakes completely, Whitemyer and Councilwoman Cherilyn Bairos wanted to give SCFPD and newly hired fire chief Whorton the chance to right the sinking ship.
“We don’t want to dissociate, we just can’t continue to operate how things are being operated,” Whitemyer said.
Murdoch disagreed. “This is not going to work. I’m not in favor of any fixes … we’re prolonging the agony. This is ripping the Band-Aid off the slow way.”
However, using the city of Los Angeles as an example, Mayor McCarty said, “A regional fire department is the best thing for Oakdale” and Murdoch didn’t disagree but pointed out that a regional fire department was more of a long-term goal rather than a short-term solution at this point.
Council passed a motion 4-1, with Bairos being the lone dissenting vote, to extend an amended six-month agreement with SCFPD with an answer deadline of Feb. 15. In the event SCFPD declines Oakdale’s offer, the city is prepared to go full-throttle with the plan to resurrect the currently defunct Oakdale City Fire Department, which will require the hiring of multiple fire personnel.
The next City Council meeting is slated for Feb. 4 at Council Chambers.