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Fire officials are leery of records request

A request from the firefighter’s union for multiple public records dating back to 2008 has been sent the Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue District. And Fire Chief Scott Weninger said meeting the request could take up to three months.

“We don’t know just how long and how much staff time it will take to meet the request by the IAFF 2819,” Weninger said. “But it could take until March.”

Fire district officials said the request is for documents related to overtime pay to firefighters and information about a recent reduction in minimum staffing, from 19 to 17 firefighters per shift.

Following a written request, a copy of the records request made by the union was given to the Central Kitsap Reporter on Tuesday. It shows that union officials want documents and records related to all notes, drafts, emails, written analysis, internal documents, meeting minutes and correspondence generated from commissioners, the fire chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, HR manager, division chiefs, battalion chiefs and staff related to any reduction in minimum staffing, overtime and safety analysis and studies since January 2008. A similar request was made for documents regarding the development of the position of career lieutenant for administrative emergency operations.

Ronny Smith, president of the local IAFF 2819 representing union firefighters in the Central Kitsap Fire District, said the request is being made so that firefighters can review what took place before commissioners approved a reduction in minimum staffing.

“The decision came too quickly,” Smith said. “All we’re trying to do is to look at what went into making that decision and whether there was any analysis done about whether the reduction would impact the safety of residents in the district.”

The CK Fire board of commissioners voted last month to drop the minimum number of firefighters per shift from 19 to 17 to reduce the amount of overtime the district accrues. This year, the district expects to pay out $886,000 in overtime pay, Weninger said. Overtime happens when firefighters who are scheduled to work are ill or at training and are replaced by other employees who reach more than 40 hours of work in a week.

Smith said the records request is not being made lightly. He said he and others are concerned that district officials didn’t really look at what response times would be if the minimum staffing was reduced.

“Did they even do a safety analysis before reducing staffing?” he asked. “If so, then the documents shouldn’t be that hard to find.”

The requests for documents dates back to 2008, Smith said, because he is trying to figure out whether the district knew it needed to hire more firefighters years ago to avoid the large amount of overtime in the past five years.

“If we’d hired appropriately back in 2008, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now,” he said.

Smith also said that the district failed to have community meetings about staffing, even though they are now planning community meetings in 2014 about the possible closure of the fire station in Tracyton.

“How come they didn’t invite the community in on the decision to reduce the minimums?” he asked. “It’s just a little curious.”

Board Chairman Dave Fergus said he wants the district to keep track of all hours spent on doing research on this request and others “so that we are able to let our taxpayers know what public records requests are costing on an individual basis.” He also said the district needs education in what can and can’t be redacted on those copies in order to keep confidential information private.

“There will be a cost to that, so the budget needs to reflect enough legal counsel time to do that,” Fergus said.

Additionally, he requested that the district purchase five laptops, one for each commissioner, so that email and records having to do with fire district business be kept separate from personal email, etc., and be more easily accessible in the event of records requests for commissioners’ emails and communications.

“We’re talking about maybe $5,000,” he said Monday. “But it could save us time and money searching for emails on our private laptops or computers.”

Smith said he wonders what the public will think about that.

“It’s a question of priorities,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re asking… what are the district’s priorities? We need to know that, so we’re all on the same page moving forward.”

Chief Weninger told commissioners that the district has been planning for some time to re-organize its document retrieval system and that he is meeting with companies that can help with that beginning this week.

Commissioners previously approved a full time IT/public records manager and that position is expected to be filled soon. That person will be the primary individual to fill the requests for public records that the district receives.

At Monday’s meeting Smith told commissioners that he wants time at a future meeting to address overtime and the district’s reserve funds. Smith said that in the documentation he’s seen regarding overtime, some tracking codes have been misused and may have inflated the actual overtime that was paid.

“Some codes have been wrong and some false data has been presented to the board,” he said. “There are some real (financial) problems in this district and I understand that. But since 2010, $14 million has been put into reserves and I’d like to know the district’s policies on these reserve accounts.

“If we’re saving for a rainy day, then I think we need to define what a rainy day is. Just when is it OK to touch those reserves? If we had to ask the public about that, what would their response be? Is it OK to have that much in reserves when we’re decreasing service?”

But Assistant Chief Jay Lovato said the reserves aren’t for use for salaries, or to hire more firefighters. He said of the more than $14 million in reserves, $8 million needs to be kept on hand to pay month-to-month expenses prior to the district receiving its property tax levy funds from the county, which happens in a lump sum twice a year.

Another $2.5 million is dedicated to paying health care costs for retirees from the district and another $25,000 is in a mitigation agreement fund and must remain in case it has to be returned to the businesses that pay mitigation costs, he said.

That leaves about $5.8 million, Lovato said,  for equipment and facility needs. He said if that money is spent on salaries or overtime, the district would not have money to replace or repair trucks or roofs, etc., should that need arise.

Commission Chairman Fergus told Smith to work with the chief to get the matter on a future agenda.

In another matter, a discussion about increasing ambulance transport fees was postponed.

Assistant Chief Lovato said the data wasn’t ready to be presented yet.  He expects to make that presentation in January.

Fergus also was re-appointed commission chairman for 2014 and Bob Muhleman was re-appointed as vice chairman for the coming year.

 

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