Following a heated discussion during a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 1, the Sun Valley City Council opted to delay approval of a new personnel policy for Fire Department volunteers until the council members could “digest it further” and receive more feedback from the city’s volunteer firefighters.
Mayor DeWayne Briscoe said at the meeting that the new policy was a direct response to the results of a forensic audit commissioned by his administration in April to investigate potential fraud in the city’s financial affairs during fiscal 2011. A report on the results of the forensic audit was received by Briscoe and the City Council in executive session on Aug. 24, but has not been released to the public.
However, in an interview after the meeting, Briscoe declined to elaborate on how the new policy is a response to the audit, saying he could not release any information included in the audit.
What is known is that the past year has been a hard one for the department. On Sept. 21, longtime Fire Chief Jeff Carnes tendered his resignation without listing a reason. Carnes had been on paid administrative leave for nearly a year.
According to an Oct. 25 report to Briscoe and the City Council from Virginia Egger, interim executive assistant to the mayor, the new policy prohibits the use of city facilities and equipment for firefighters’ personal use. The report says the policy also emphasizes the difference between volunteer and employee firefighters, ceasing hourly pay for volunteers in favor of quarterly base payments plus additional pay when a volunteer is called to a fire.
Egger’s report states that under the Federal Labor Standards Act, if a volunteer is paid more than a “nominal fee,” no greater than 20 percent of what he or she would earn as an employee, that person no longer qualifies as a “bona fide volunteer.” In that case, he or she must be deemed an employee under the federal law and must be paid minimum wage and compensated for any overtime.
“This is gobbledygook. [The volunteers] will go to Ketchum where they will get paid. This is bureaucracy at its best. Release the audit.”
Former mayor and former volunteer firefighter
Michael Parda, who will succeed Egger next week when she leaves the city to become town manager of Avon, Colo., said in an interview that it’s important for the city to have a combined (volunteer and employee) fire department. He said that allows the city to hire fewer full-time firefighters, saving the taxpayers’ money without endangering their homes.
“It’s important for the volunteers too, to feel they’re giving back to the community,” said Parda, who was once a volunteer firefighter himself, though not for Sun Valley. “That’s what a combined fire department is all about.”
Additionally, Egger’s report states that it’s important to pay the volunteers quarterly instead of hourly to keep them actively engaged in the department and “continuing drills,” even when there is not a fire.
Egger said at the meeting that three of the department’s 19 volunteers helped develop and review the policy and that the volunteers are “on board.” She urged the council to approve the policy.
However, former Mayor Dave Wilson—who was also a volunteer firefighter for the city—spoke out against the new policy.
“This is gobbledygook,” he said at the meeting. “[The volunteers] will go to Ketchum where they will get paid. This is bureaucracy at its best. Release the audit.”
Wilson said the council should take its time and talk to the volunteers. He said that if volunteers were paid quarterly or per-call instead of hourly, they might not be motivated to stay at a fire that lasts many days.
At the meeting, Councilman Franz Suhadolnik said he wanted more time to digest the policy. Councilwoman Michelle Griffith said she wanted to hear more from the volunteers.
“I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the longevity of our fire department,” Councilman Bob Youngman said. “I want to make sure this policy won’t affect that institution negatively long-term.”
The council decided to continue the discussion during its next meeting on Dec. 6 and invited Sun Valley and other local volunteer firefighters to actively participate in that discussion.
Egger said Thursday that the Sun Valley volunteers had all been given copies of the policy during a department meeting Tuesday. She said they were encouraged to provide feedback to Briscoe, council members and Acting Fire Chief Ray Franco, either in person or in a letter.
Egger said the firefighters asked many questions at that meeting and it was gratifying to see their participation and their commitment to the department.
“I truly believe they are on their way to becoming the best combined department in the region,” she said.
Brennan Rego: email@example.com