In a recent letter to the editor and in editorial comments in this paper, one of Idyllwild Fire’s firefighters has been criticized for 1) making too much money, 2) playing too active a role in the affairs of the department and 3) failing to properly oversee the department’s budget and expenditures.
The firefighter in question is Acting Captain Mark Lamont. For well over a year Lamont has served as “administrative captain” while receiving an engineer’s salary.
If there’s one thing I learned during my 3-1⁄2 years serving as a fire commissioner it’s that Mark Lamont is one of, if not, the most valuable member of Idyllwild Fire Protection District and we should thank our lucky stars we have someone like him working for us.
Mark’s basic salary is the same amount received by the other engineers. The rest of the $143,000 he was paid last year was overtime pay and much of that was the result of him volunteering to take part in what is called a strike team.
Most fire departments belong to Mutual Aid Agreements, meaning that when one fire department needs help the other members of the agreement send strike teams to wherever the fire happens to be. The team may be kept on scene anywhere from one to several days and they are on duty 24 hours a day. During that time they are paid time-and-a-half. The good thing is that IFPD is fully reimbursed for those expenses.
As it turns out, very few of our fire captains and engineers are interested in being part of a strike team, so Lamont fills in whenever he’s needed. As for doing too much in the way of serving our fire department and community, Mark deserves our gratitude, not our criticism.
And then there’s the administration of the budget, and what some people refer to as “that mess in the fire department,” referring to the health insurance payments that weren’t deducted from the firefighters’ pay.
About a year-and-a-half ago our in-house certified public accountant at the time correctly determined that health care benefits should be added to the firefighters’ gross pay amount, then deducted from the net amount shown on the their pay checks.
The problem was that it was added to the gross, but not deducted from the amount of the pay checks, at least not in all cases. Apparently, there was a breakdown in communications with the company that prepares the checks.
So why didn’t Lamont or the board spot the error? First of all, the net amount shown on each firefighter’s pay check fluctuates on an almost monthly basis due to overtime along with recent changes in their salaries and retirement contributions.
Making it even harder to notice is the fact that not all of the firefighters participate in the basic health plan arrangement. Some are paid the money and then use it to buy their own insurance at a lower cost, or maybe their spouse has insurance that covers the whole family so they receive the money legitimately under what is called the Cafeteria Plan.
Add to that the fact that several firefighters have their checks deposited directly into their bank accounts and in some instances their spouses handle the finances.
And one thing is for sure: If you had been on the board or were the administrative captain, you wouldn’t have noticed the error either.
Kudos to Jerry Buchanan for figuring it all out, but even he would tell you that it wasn’t easy.