Calif. Grand Jury Bashes Fire District For Wasting Money

June 18, 2013
A grand jury report says Newcastle Fire Protection District board members neglected repairs at a damaged fire station, resulting in unnecessary temporary housing expenses.

June 18--Former board members of the Newcastle Fire Protection District wasted taxpayer money by neglecting repairs at a damaged fire station, resulting in needless spending on temporary housing for firefighters and on a costly special election, according to the Placer County grand jury.

But a former fire district board member countered Monday that the station remains unsafe and that new leaders aren't spending parcel tax money to build a new facility.

The grand jury report issued Friday is the latest salvo in a debate over the fate of Fire Station 41, an 80-year-old building in Placer County.

The county claims the station is completely safe after new board members ordered a series of repairs.

The grand jury report detailed the history of troubles with the station that began in 2005 when a fire truck hit a structural beam during an emergency call.

After the beam was patched up, firefighters continued to sleep at the station. But in 2011, a Cal-OSHA complaint prompted the county to restrict the station to daytime use and prevented firefighters from sleeping there.

Former board members authorized the district to purchase a camp trailer to accommodate three full-time firefighters, said Robert Stearns, the former vice chairman of the Newcastle Fire Protection District.

The trailer was meant to be a temporary fix until the board could build a new station.

Stearns said the station still had out-of-date wiring, damaged brick and an unstable concrete floor. It was necessary to spend money to house the firefighters in trailers because Station 41 remained dangerous, he said.

"I think firefighters and the public are in danger right now," Stearns said.

To give the firefighters more permanent housing, the former chairman of the district leased two trailers for $24,985, according to the report. The district then had to pay $9,057 to add bathrooms to the trailers.

Because the trailers were leased without a formal vote by board members, the contracts were considered void, a fact the new members pointed out after they were voted in, said Dave Ward, the current board chairman. The new board spent $300 on repairs to satisfy the county's requirements and moved the firefighters back in, then canceled the lease on the trailers.

The report also states the district spent $20,810 last year on a special election for Measure B, a ballot measure that imposed a $154 tax on every taxable land parcel in the district. The special election was held three months before the regularly scheduled elections in June. The measure, which passed, justified the tax increase by promising to "replace the old, condemned fire station with a cost-effective, new building."

The grand jury report contends that voters approved the parcel tax based on misleading information because the building was never condemned.

On Monday, Placer County building officials confirmed that.

Meanwhile, the new board has completed permanent repairs and put new stucco on the old station's facade.

The new board still wants to build a new fire station, which could cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, Ward said. But for now, it's focusing on buying improved equipment for the firefighters, who are using fire trucks built in 1988.

"The first thing we want to do is get these guys new apparatus to deal with so they can do their job," Ward said.

The report concludes by projecting a gloomy outlook for the district, which "has experienced a rapidly declining financial condition" due to increased costs and lower property tax returns.

But the district recently finalized a more balanced budget that should steer it to calmer financial waters, Ward said.

"We started out in a hole, but now we're crawling out of it, and it's fine," Ward said.

Copyright 2013 - The Sacramento Bee

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