Plagued with faltering leadership and spurred by the sudden resignation of Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott, the Unified Fire Authority board voted on Tuesday, July 19, to split the job of deputy chief into two board-appointed positions.
The move took place during a two-hour closed session meeting, during which time the board, headed by elected leaders from across Salt Lake County whose towns and cities contract with the UFA for fire and other emergency services, also accepted Scott's resignation. Scott will be paid during the 60 days of notice he provided, and will receive his full three-month severance package.
But Scott's departure from UFA, the board said, would take effect immediately. Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle says the departure makes way for much-needed changes in the upper management of UFA, which is the state's largest firefighting department.
"We needed to rework the organizational structure at the command staff level, open up communication channels from top to bottom to create a more collaborative working environment," Dahle says. "It's an effort to try to get the organization healthy again. I think that's what everybody wants. That's the ultimate goal."
Scott, a 22-year veteran at UFA, cited health reasons for his departure.
His resignation comes on the heels of a City Weekly story that revealed a bonus pay structure that provided Scott, UFA Chief Michael Jensen, as well as the organization's lawyer and CFO, with more than $400,000 in extra pay over the past five years. In 2015 alone, these four individuals each accepted $34,000 in bonus payments from the Unified Fire Service Area (UFSA), a member of the broader UFA organization that acts as a taxing district for Salt Lake County, Herriman, Taylorsville, Riverton, Eagle Mountain and Midvale.
The bonuses rankled some board members, including Dahle and Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, who, despite their positions on the UFA compensation and benefits and finance committees, respectfully, had been kept in the dark about the payments as they were paid without full board approval, or knowledge. The volume of the bonuses also escalated rapidly. A public records request filed by City Weekly shows that in 2011 Jensen, Scott, CFO Shirley Perkins and legal counsel Karl Hendrickson pocketed around $4,000 apiece. In 2012, the number climbed to $17,000, then $19,000 in 2013 and $28,000 in 2014.
While the bonuses, which Jensen says are not bonuses but rather "incentive" payments for work he and his top lieutenants perform for the district that is above and beyond their day jobs at UFA, were stopped for a period of time, they could continue to flow under a memorandum of understanding that the UFA board adopted in March, 2016. Among other things, this document requires full board approval of the bonus payments.
What Dahle and Cullimore found galling about the bonuses was the fact that they were taking place without full board knowledge. And, in the case of Jensen and Scott, who were being paid for their full-time work as fire chiefs at UFA, appeared to be working some untold numbers of hours on the side for the UFSA. Jensen, who is serving his third term as a Salt Lake County Councilman—a position that pays him $51,000 in total yearly compensation, also receives $225,300 for being the fire chief, while Scott earned $207,000, before the bonuses.
Buoyed by an outside legal opinion given to the UFA board in December, 2015 that showed that the payment scheme violated the chiefs' employment contracts, Dahle and Cullimore moved to sever the payment arrangement. Instead, the board voted against taking any disciplinary action.
Scott did not respond to calls seeking comment and was reportedly out of town on a Boy Scout trip as the board discussed his resignation.
A second records request seeking all of the gas expenditures of UFA chiefs, deputy chiefs and battalion chiefs, showed that over the past five years, Scott has amassed $28,800 in gas expenditures on his UFA fuel card. Scott, along with Jensen and other top ranking UFA employees, are given vehicles that they are allowed to take home.
While all of the chiefs whose gas expenditures were provided tallied tens of thousands of miles on their company SUVs, no one spent more than Scott, whose monthly gas expenses often crested $500, and every so often, topped $700. By comparison, Jensen's five-year gas total was $16,600.
In September, 2012, several UFA assistant and battalion chiefs racked up large gas bills. One pumped $544, while another pumped $450 and Jensen burned through $401. At $796, Scott's gas bill soundly soared above all others. And after tacking on a pair of car washes and three "miscellaneous" purchases, each totaling $8, Scott's total vehicle bill for a single month crested $850.
The $12,200 disparity between the two chiefs, Jensen says, could be partly explained by Scott's children's acceptance into a private charter school in American Fork. Jensen says Scott drives the children from his Herriman home to school in American Fork, then to work and meetings at the UFA's 28 fire stations scattered across the Salt Lake Valley.
"That could account for some of it," Jensen says of Scott shuttling his children to school.
Jensen emphasized that he, Scott and all of his assistant chiefs are expected to respond to incidents at the drop of a hat, and that it is necessary for them to often be in their UFA-provided vehicles.
But while there appears to be an avenue to vet gas expenditures for lower level UFA employees with gas cards, there is a hole in oversight at the very top of the organization. Jensen says it would be up to a battalion chief and a captain in the logistics division to notify him if there were ever a discrepancy with he or Scott's fuel expenses.
Indeed, Battalion Chief Steve Judkins says he has phoned Scott on more than one occasion to check to see if everything is on the up-and-up with his gas card. However, while Judkins says he watches out for anomalies, like gas cards being used out of state, as Scott did in February 2016 in Las Vegas, he says that if the chief says everything is OK with the gas card and it hasn't been stolen, his line of questions stop there.
"As far as I know, he gets unlimited personal use with his vehicle, so it would have to be something really out of the norm for me to contact him," Judkins says. "My fear is if it's something out of the norm, maybe someone got a hold of his card, something like that. It's not my job to ask why they were there and what they were doing."
Several months worth of gas records show that mileage anomalies did exist with Scott's gas purchases. One such instance occurred in April 2015, when Scott pumped $519 in gas and sprung for three car washes. On two of the nine occasions that Scott filled his tank, the odometer reading that must be entered at the pump was flubbed. These errors resulted in a miles-per-gallon read out on the fuel records of 0.0 for fill-ups that occurred on April 11, 14, 17 and 21. Odometer errors were noted on at least nine other months of Scott's fuel reports, which were provided for a five-year period.
Jensen says he knows Scott put more miles on his car than he does, but that he "wouldn't say there's anything that's been out of the ordinary that I've seen."
"When I talk to [logistics]," Jensen continues, "they tell me it's pretty consistent with him."
While Scott is now gone, Cullimore says the system used to keep gas expenses in check—especially if subordinates are expected to question their boss's spending—could use a tune-up.
Dahle and Cullimore say that the changes in how the top of the UFA is organized, combined with shedding light on the bonus payments, will combine to make the organization healthier.
Herriman Councilmember Coralee Moser, who represents her community on the UFA board, says that a quick study of the gas expenditures shows a need for a "tightening up" on gas card use.
"I believe that we can work as a board to ensure that our policies are crafted as tightly as possible to protect the taxpayer interests, including creating an objective system to ensure that the top echelon of the fire authority's purchases receive reviews just as any other employee and we make sure any anomalies are caught before they become longstanding issues," Moser says.