At the SEFD Fire Board meeting on March 22, Chair Chris Johnson announced that the audit on overpayments to Chief DeWolf was completed by Walker & Armstrong, LLP. Chief Joseph DeWolf was terminated on January 5, 2021 for directing or allowing and accepting an increase in pay of $300 per week without obtaining SEFD Board approval dating back to November of 2018. According to the audit, the direct overpayment of the unauthorized increase in pay totaled $30,550.
The rippling effect of the increase also resulted in overpayment to the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) for retirement contributions and taxes paid by the department totaling $7,329. Unauthorized family medical insurance to include dental and vision came to $26,428, a cost which should have been borne by DeWolf according to his employment contract. Lastly, overpayments for the period DeWolf was on paid leave and not performing under the IGA totaled $11,146.
Johnson filed a claim on March 23 with INSZONE, the SEFD Insurance company, to recoup the $75,453 of overpayments and expects to receive their decision soon. If the claim is denied, the Board will consider contacting the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s office to inquire about other options to resolve the misuse of public funds. The Board also contacted the State’s PSPRS office to discuss possible refunding; however, Johnson said the response from the State was ambiguous and further action may be required. Additional information may be available at the SEFD Special Board meeting tentatively scheduled for April 7.
Board discussions turned to developing the draft budget for 2021-2022 and they tentatively scheduled a public meeting for discussion also on April 7. The Board’s stated goal is to not raise last year’s tax rate. They are proposing an increase in wages for the lower paid employees to $13 per hour and identified the need to replace one or possibly two 2006 ambulances incurring costly repairs.
Replacing the Fire Chief was also discussed at the meeting. The Board’s intent is to enter into an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with the Palominas Fire District to have the Palominas Fire Chief also manage the SEFD. Negotiations with Palominas are on-going; however, no action will be taken until the Palominas Chief vacancy is filled, likely by Jon Buonaccorsi who is the acting chief for both
Palominas and SEFD. Johnson said this would be a bridging strategy for maybe a year or more, after which they would consider a permanent fill.
The Board also discussed recruitment for the vacant board position and decided to extend the recruitment period to accept applications to the end of April.
When asked to respond to the statement that some residents believe the current/previous boards are culpable in some of the problems that occurred, Johnson replied, “Given DeWolf’s experience and longevity, the Board trusted the chief and failed to ask key questions on the budget and his management. We thought we knew what was in certain line items but found out we were wrong. However, no matter how long it took to identify the problems, it does not negate the fact that the chief took pay and benefits that he was not entitled to, and these were paid for with public funds.”