Audit Criticizes Fire Department's Spending : Finance: County report calls for agency to make cutbacks. It cites heavy overtime expenses and questions possible sick leave abuse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's fire department is top-heavy with managers, spends too much on overtime and is lax with sick leave, according to a county audit released Wednesday.

The audit, prepared by county Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon, calls for the department to pare overtime spending, which accounted for $5.5 million of its $43-million budget last year.

The 443-employee department should reduce some of its 26 management positions and monitor sick leave--which totaled 49,000 hours last fiscal year--for possible abuse, the audit found.

"We are not questioning the overall effectiveness or the dedication of the people in the operation," Mahon said. "We think that even in times of stress, they still are doing a good job. But they cannot ride on that. We've got to find ways to do it better for less money."

Fire officials, however, said some of the recommendations are impractical and could impede emergency response.

"We are at the bare-bones minimum," said County Fire Chief George Lund. He said he disagrees that the department's spending practices are excessive.

Lund said that the auditors do not understand how a fire department must operate to be prepared for any emergency. And he said they are trying to slice the department budget as if it were an ordinary government office.

Mahon, in turn, said county auditors were "disappointed" by fire officials' response to the recommendations. The department's management, he said, "has generally taken the position of justifying the current operations rather than accepting the possibility of other operational alternatives."

The audit will be accepted by the Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday.

"I think the public would not be pleased to see some of those numbers," Supervisor Maria VanderKolk said. "There are a lot of things that need to be changed. The abuses are terrible in the sick leave and overtime, that has been known for a long time."

Mahon's office began the audit in July at the request of the supervisors. Supervisors Vicky Howard and Maggie Kildee pushed for the study after critics accused the department of being too generous with overtime.

Kildee called the audit a "first step" in making the department more efficient. She said she expects the board to forward the findings to a citizens advisory committee, set up by supervisors two weeks ago to evaluate the department.

"I see this as a tool," Kildee said.

The majority of the 17-page audit scrutinized the department's personnel practices. It also studied the department's fleet operations and reviewed its fire prevention efforts.

The audit found:

*On average, county firefighters each received $8,000 annually in overtime. Engineers averaged $18,000 a year and captains received $23,000 for working extra hours.

*In a sample of 25 fire department employees, one employee called in sick one day and worked overtime the following day. In the same sample, 13 employees alternately used sick leave and vacation to take off extended periods. These are cited as two examples of how sick leave is misused in the department.

*Although 64% of the fire department's calls were for medical emergencies, all equipment maintained by the department was primarily designed for fire-related incidents. The department was called to put out fires only 7% of the time. The remaining calls were responding to hazardous conditions or other incidents.

*All the county's 30 stations are staffed at the same level, regardless of level of activity. For example, during 1992, 11 stations that responded to less than 300 calls had the same level of staffing as the six stations that responded to more than 1,000 calls.

Mahon said he is recommending that the department consider adjusting staffing levels at the various stations and use volunteer firefighters as backups. He said a strong reserve force could also be instrumental in reducing overtime.

In addition, Mahon suggests that the department send smaller vehicles on medical calls, rather than taking large, gas-hungry firetrucks.

"The intent of the audit was not to criticize but to identify areas where improvements could be made," Mahon said. "The future of the Fire Protection District, as with every government agency, depends on management's ability to meet the challenge of maximizing effectiveness and minimizing costs."

Lund said that while most calls were medical-related, crews must be prepared to leave directly from medical emergencies to fight fires at other locations. As a result, leaving behind a fire truck could pose a serious danger.

He said he is also leery of using too many reserve firefighters. The department now has 19 people in its reserve force--compared to 600 at the Orange County Fire Department.

"I would prefer to use professional firefighters in all cases," he said. "They are going to provide a higher level of service. The community needs are what have to be satisfied. Maybe we are setting our standards too high. The citizens advisory committee can tell us that."

Lund also discounted the suggestion that there is an abuse of sick leave in the department.

"I don't think our sick leave is any different than any organization with the numbers we are dealing with," he said.

In addition, Lund defended the use of overtime, saying it is needed to ensure that stations are staffed adequately in case of emergencies.

"If we were incapable to meet those demands during the peaks, we would not be able to provide the service the public expects of us," he said.

The audit's criticisms of the fire department's operations provided more ammunition to the city of Thousand Oaks in its threat to withdraw from the county fire district.

Councilman Frank Schillo said the audit proves the department should strike a better balance between putting out fires, which used to be its main job, and treating the medical emergencies which now make up most of its calls.

"The department is not positioning itself to face the future," said Schillo, who has been leading a panel studying whether Thousand Oaks can save money by starting its own fire department.

Schillo said fire department figures show that Thousand Oaks residents pay about $11 million in taxes for fire services. In turn, the department spends $10.5 million to provide firefighters based in six stations in the city and one station for areas outside Thousand Oaks.

By comparison, Simi Valley residents pay $6.5 million for fire protection services. And the department spends more than $7 million to cover the city with coverage mostly from five stations, Schillo said.

Schillo questioned whether the district operates more fire stations in Thousand Oaks than the city needs.

Times staff writer Mack Reed contributed to this report.

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