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Forum tries to extinguish rumors about Golden Valley Fire Department


Golden Valley Fire District Chairman Mark Vanik, left, and Chief Tom O’Donohue address a town hall meeting Wednesday night. (DOUG McMURDO/Miner)

GOLDEN VALLEY - Nobody understands the adage that says where there's smoke there's fire better than the men and women who fight fires.

But sometimes, smoke is metaphorical and doesn't come from fire, but from people with a fire ax to grind.

That's the message Golden Valley Fire District Chief Tom O'Donohue and Chairman Mark Vanik sent Wednesday night at a town hall meeting held to discuss rumors about the district.

Moderated by district photographer and Kingman Daily Miner blogger Butch Meriwether, Vanik and O'Donohue answered more than 80 questions from Golden Valley residents - most which were sent in ahead of time so answers would be readily available.

Many of the questions regarded the district's efforts to begin transporting patients to Kingman Regional Medical Center, the actual cost of the district's new Fire Station 11, and alleged open meeting violations.

The district has been mired in controversy over the past couple of years, due in large part to the district moving from a virtual all-volunteer department to one with paid professional firefighters, EMTs and paramedics.

Vanik was the only director present at the meeting due to open meeting laws. If a quorum were present, the meeting would have to have been formalized, an agenda posted and minutes taken.

Most of the approximately 50 Golden Valley residents in attendance appeared to support O'Donohue and the board of directors. Had critics been present, they could have asked questions and perhaps had some issues clarified.

The most astonishing information regarded Director Rhonda Brooks, who refuses to speak with O'Donohue and rarely speaks to her colleagues on the board. Instead, she routinely calls the district's legal counsel, according to O'Donohue.

Those phone conversations resulted in $1,900 worth of attorney fees district taxpayers are responsible for. Vanik had the second highest attorney costs at $125. Director Steve Robinson tallied a $28 fee and directors Curt Hardy and Paul Gorham had no fees.

However, the audience gasped when Vanik said Brooks' fees were $19,000. He corrected his mistake the following day, but the point was still made: Brooks calls the lawyers quite often to get answers to questions that could be answered correctly for free if she would only communicate with O'Donohue or Vanik.

Brooks has steadfastly declined to speak to the Kingman Daily Miner since shortly after her election. Attempts to seek comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Every director is subject to recall, but it doesn't appear sufficient signatures have been collected to force a special election for any of them, Vanik said following the meeting.

Here are the answers to questions regarding the certificate of necessity the district seeks from the state to run ambulance transports:

The district purchased two ambulances from the Shoreline Fire Department in Washington state for $36,000 in 2010. Hardy was the only director of the current board serving at that time.

The ambulances are used for staff projects or contract work simply to "keep them moving," but they are not used as ambulances.

The process to start its own ambulance service began in February 2010 under the guidance of former Chief Paul Hewitt.

Roughly $347,300 has been spent on the certificate of necessity to date. The district's attorney charges $250 an hour. The district paid more than $227,000 in legal fees in fiscal year 2012-2013 ending June 30.

O'Donohue does not earn additional pay when he travels to Phoenix for business related to the certificate of necessity.

If the state grants the district permission to operate its own ambulance service, a total of three new positions could be added. The district already has the brick and mortar buildings and staffing to perform the job.

Residents will not pay additional property taxes to fund the ambulance service. Those residents who used the district's ambulance service would receive a bill, but it is less than what the current provider charges, O'Donohue said.

The ambulance service will be used for emergency transport only. No inter-facility transports will be conducted.

Questions and answers on the cost of the new fire station:

The district paid a total of $830,000 for the station. The cost to build the actual building is roughly $566,500. This discrepancy has led some to claim the station cost more than $300,000 than the bid, but Vanik made it clear there were no cost overruns.

"There is a continued misconception that there was a $300,000 cost overrun," said Vanik. "This is not true."

The additional cost involved paying for the property itself, permits, landscaping and concrete driveways and parking lots in the front and back.

The land was roughly $19,300. Concrete was roughly $114,000 and landscaping was about $5,000, not including replacing plants that died.

There were change orders that added to the cost, such as the construction of a compressor room, an awning for the front entrance, additional bedrooms, a trash enclosure and a separation wall.

Also, O'Donohue said he served as the general contractor and made a mistake when he put the generator next to where on-duty firefighters sleep and it had to be moved, adding $5,000 to the cost.

Vanik said the new station would be useable for the next 35 to 40 years.

Very little was spent on furnishings and appliances. O'Donohue said those items were moved to the new station from the old station. Five new stools and one new television were purchased for the station, and the district is in the process of purchasing additional bed frames.

Answers to questions regarding O'Donohue's salary:

O'Donohue is under a one-year contract and he earns $94,500 a year. He does not have a so-called golden parachute should he be terminated, but his salary will be paid for six months should he be let go without cause, or for nine months if he is unable to find a job after the six-month period.

The average salary for fire chiefs in the area is about $98,000. Kingman Fire Chief Chuck Osterman, $103,500, and Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire Chief Patrick Moore, $96,700, earn more than O'Donohue. They also lead larger departments.

Vanik said the board did not have any concerns regarding allegations O'Donohue abuses his authority.

"We believe Chief O'Donohue manages in a fair but firm manner," he said.

And employees also support the chief, who has been anonymously accused of creating a hostile work environment. Vanik said a recent interview process that involved every district employee indicated the "vast majority" of staff supports the direction, management and overall vision of the district.

O'Donohue said one allegation he's heard - that he has a "noise machine" in his office - is true. He said his office, which is a mobile home, has thin doors and conversations can be heard in the lobby.

"It's reasonable to assure private conversations with employees are kept confidential ... employees would be very upset if others were privy to their expected confidential information via thin walls," he said.

Answers to questions regarding staffing:

There are 29 full-time employees, five paid on call employees and four volunteers. Of that number, only three are not trained firefighters, the administrative manager, her assistant and the district's mechanic.

Firefighters are paid overtime if they work on their scheduled day off, with the exception of chief officers, which include O'Donohue and two assistant chiefs, who are salaried and not eligible.

Answers to the district's finances, open meeting violations and other matters:

The district passed its most independent audit with "flying colors," said O'Donohue. Indeed, despite spending nearly $1 million on the new fire station, the district is debt free.

Saunders Co. Ltd. conducted the latest audit in October.

"We don't owe anybody anything," said Vanik following the meeting. "I think our residents would appreciate that."

Despite at least a dozen complaints filed with the state alleging violations of open meeting laws filed in 2013, none of them were found to be valid.

However, it cost district taxpayers between $1,200 and $2,000 every time a complaint is filed, according to Vanik.

There is potential buyer for the old station on Mayer Road, but district officials couldn't provide specifics, as negotiations remain active. Once it is sold, however, the district should make more than $200,000 on the deal.

The Golden Valley Fire District's next regularly scheduled meeting is Jan. 22.




 

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