The Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury found merit in a complaint that Turlock Rural Fire Chief Rick Fortado over-compensated himself for work related to state wild fire relief efforts.
The State of California reimburses fire districts to send in crews to aid in fighting wild fires around the state. Along with reimbursements for each firefighter sent, the fire district is paid a daily rate for the use of their engine, and a 16.51 percent administrative reimbursement by the California Emergency Management Agency.
Although Fortado, as the chief of the fire district, did not actually go out on mutual aid strike team assignments around the state, he received over $22,000 in strike team administrative payments for 2008 and 2009, according to the grand jury findings.
As part of the investigation, Fortado supplied to the Civil Grand Jury a list of duties he performed related to fielding a strike team as justification for retaining the administrative money. His duties include monitoring statewide activity during fire season and alerting members of the potential to respond to a call for a strike team; determining who is interested in going; ensuring that all personnel have the equipment needed; remaining responsible for the team until they get to the incident; resolving any personnel or equipment issues that arise; and debriefing the crew after deployment, among others.
The Civil Grand Jury, however, found that “there is no correlation between the 16.51 percent administrative fee retained by the chief and the amount of time he spends on strike team administration.”
During the investigation, the Civil Grand Jury also found that funds intended for the rural fire district and for firefighter reimbursement were received and deposited into the district’s association account, where they are comingled with association dues and fundraising monies prior to being disbursed.
They also found that there is no external oversight of the primary account used for disbursing wages and earnings of all fire district personnel.
During the investigation, the Civil Grand Jury found that Turlock Rural firefighters are in positions that serve at the will of the chief and have no process available to them for reporting concerns or issues, except to report them directly to the chief.
The grand jury took issue with some of the TRFD Board of Directors members who have exceeded the three-year term limit allowed for serving on the board, as specified on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Web site.
The Civil Grand Jury recommended Fortado make a formal accounting of the actual hours he expended while performing strike team administration duties, and clearly state the rate at which his compensation will be calculated.
They also recommended establishing a separate Turlock Rural Fire District account to be used for depositing and disbursing funds and firefighter reimbursement and having an external organization audit the account.
A process that allows members of the fire department to express concerns and issues or make recommendations without fear of retribution was also recommended by the grand jury.
“It’s nice to have an outside agency to review any organization,” Fortado said of the grand jury report. “Turlock Rural Fire is open to anything that could benefit the department.
“Although we update our policies and procedures on a regular basis, the department, like most departments, operates the way it has for many years. We plan on reviewing the recommendations and seeing what, if anything, we can do to make Turlock Rural Fire an even better department than it already is.”
On the fire district board member term limit issue, the Civil Grand Jury recommended that the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors either enforce the current term limits or change the policy.
According to Stanislaus County District 2 Supervisor Vito Chiesa, whose district includes Turlock, the current Turlock Rural Fire District Board of Director three year term with a two term limit is a guideline and has not been made an ordinance.
“We’re going to have to decide, as a board, whether there’s going to be enforced term limits,” Chiesa said.
The board is currently made up of five members. Two of the members’ terms are up in June 2011, while the other three members’ terms are not up until June 2012.
The Civil Grand Jury requested responses to their findings from both the Turlock Rural Fire Department and the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
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