Jim Clark: Is Incline’s fire district in danger?
October 15, 2014
Is the Incline/Crystal Bay community in danger of getting burned by the firefighters' fight going on between Reno and Washoe County? It bears watching as the battle appears to be moving to the 2015 Nevada legislative session.
As Mark Twain famously once said of the Silver State's lawmakers: "no man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."
Here's some background. For over a decade, Washoe County delegated its fire protection duties to the city of Reno to manage and administer. During this time there were charges and counter charges that Reno mismanaged the whole shebang, so about three years ago, Washoe County declined to renew the contract and formed the Truckee Meadows Fire Department to handle medical and fire emergencies in unincorporated county areas.
The result has not been pleasing to watch. Faced with substantial cut in its area served, the Reno Fire Department was ordered by the city council to reduce salaries or lay off 33 firefighters. The firefighters' union declined to reduce salaries, thus sacrificing newer (lower paid) firefighters, but just in the nick of time, a multimillion-dollar federal "safety" grant was awarded and layoffs were averted for one year.
After the grant was used up, the city again ordered layoffs. The firefighters sued on the grounds the city could afford to keep the targeted employers and they won a temporary stay preserving, for now, the surplus employees as the contract goes to arbitration.
Superimposed on all this is the Reno firefighter union's demand that fire trucks be manned by four firefighters, where as Washoe County, Sparks and the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District use a "flex" system that averages three firefighters per fire truck.
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Big deal? Darn right! The Reno Fire Department has nine battalion chiefs, each of whom earned between $208,000 and $276,000 in 2013, so 33 percent more staffing is costly.
Bad blood between Reno and Washoe County over fire services has persisted after the "divorce". A main point of contention is the obligation of one department to go to the aid of the other in case of major conflagrations (called "automatic aid"). Washoe has held out an olive branch on this issue but Reno firefighters picked the olives. No agreement whatsoever.
That brings us to the possibility that Incline/Crystal Bay could get sucked into this childish spat. The event giving rise to that specter was a fire in the Hidden Valley (unincorporated Washoe County) home of Richard West, owner of Jones West Ford in Reno.
Washoe firefighters responded with a reduced crew, which called on a Reno station a mile away. By the time the Reno firefighters showed up, the house burned down. One of the first to express concern over this was State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno).
Even after West's fire loss, the Reno firefighters' union persists in its quarrel with Washoe, so Kieckhefer has teamed up with Assemblyman David Bobzien (D-Reno) to sponsor bill draft request No. 121, a measure mandating every fire protection district to enter into an automatic aid agreement with neighboring jurisdictions.
Here's where Incline/Crystal Bay could get caught up in this. Suppose BDR121 becomes law and the Reno firefighters stubbornly continue to resist entering an automatic aid agreement. Would the next step be legislatively mandated forced consolidation?
Recalling Mark Twain's comment about the legislature, could the result be a county-wide fire protection district with a Reno dominated board that has access to Incline/Crystal Bay's assessed valuation as a tax base?
The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District was formed in 1959 by Washoe County Commissioners and ratified in a general election. It is maybe one of the 10 best in the United States. Every local I talk with is really happy about the job they do for us. Could their independence be threatened by legislative measures designed to fix things in the valley? We should watch this carefully.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada State Republican Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.