GRAND LAKE — At its final meeting, the current Grand Lake Fire Protection District board passed a bundle of changes that met some suspicion.
On April 9, the fire district five board members adopted an amended budget, a new contract for Fire Chief Mike Long and paid out some of his accumulated leave time. Given recent controversy surrounding the fire district, those changes have raised a few eyebrows.
“There’s a lot of misinformation floating around,” Long said.
Much of the mistrust coming from board candidates, who will be running for three available seats this May, stems from the fire chief’s employment contract. Long confirmed he’s never had a contract in the 11 years he’s worked at the district. Instead of being an eleventh-hour parting gift, however, Long said current board members have explored creating a contract for longer than a year.
“There was a lot of discussion about appearances, but the process started in early 2013,” Long said, as far as looking at an evaluative process for the fire chief’s position. “It would’ve be nice if we wouldn’t have been so slow in getting it done.”
According to Long, the board consulted with the district’s legal representative, or general counsel, and found over half of his associated fire districts had contracts for chiefs. The adopted contract will be used for future chiefs as well. It sets Long’s salary at the 2013 level. It reinforces the job description, responsibilities and compensation already in place. It also reinforces an extra week of vacation he receives beyond what’s outlined in the district’s employee policy manual.
Significantly, the term of the agreement is for two years. During that time, the contract does not allow Long to seek other employment. It also offers a severance package if he’s terminated during the two-year period. That payout amounts to two weeks for every year he’s served, minus the first probationary year, for a total of just under $43,000. The contract goes further to define “termination” as any action by the board to reduce his “role, powers, duties, authority or responsibilities” or his “base salary, compensation or any other financial benefit.”
Although Long said the contract process began back in 2013, he acknowledge he felt it was important to get it approved by the current board instead of an incoming one.
“From my perspective, it will give me an opportunity to prove myself to the new board before any possible strange or arbitrary decision are made,” he said.
Concerns were also raised about the board’s amended budget. The board approved a supplement of $130,000 to the general fund. That supplement is divvied up among numerous expense and operations line items, and a portion does provide some benefit to the fire chief. Among the amendments was $50,000 to salaries and wages for district employees. About $10,000 went to his employees who chose to be paid for overtime hours instead of comp time. Another $10,000 went to wages for a new part-time employee. The remaining $30,000 went to bumps in full-time employee salaries and to 550 hours Long accrued in paid time off. The district’s policy manual allows employees to accumulate their holiday, vacation and sick time with no cap.
According to Long, part of the reason the fire district doesn’t set a cap is because it doesn’t offer employees long-term disability coverage. Instead, they can accrue their hours to take time off in case of trouble. Still, board members have discussed the possibility of setting a cap on paid time off accrual. The fire chief cashed out on 550 of his 600 accrued hours, for a total of $16,700.
“That was to bring my balance down so it’s commensurate with the other folks,” Long said. “That way if the new board does (adopt) a cap, then it’s not going to be a point of contention because it’s already taken care of.”
Another $50,000 of the budget’s supplement was added to reserves to cover the cost of Long’s severance in case he’s dismissed without cause under his new employment contract.
“It’s rounded up to $50,000,” he said. “It’s not an expense, it’s a reserve. So if I don’t get unloaded, it’s never triggered.”
Another $10,000 in the budget supplement went to new uniforms and equipment for volunteers and staff. The remaining $20,000 went to improving the fire district’s communication and public relations in light of its recent controversy, which involved a canceled election and complaints from residents that the district wasn’t being transparent. Long said the district has since mailed out election notification postcards, newsletter updates and it has started posting meeting notifications in more public places. Most of those changes, however, have a cost.
“It’s clear we need to be better at communicating, and I think we’ve made some huge improvements,” Long said. “But we can’t be better communicators at no expense.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.