Eiden: Investigating SCUF's spending

As I researched expenditures versus income in Sublette County, I found that we’re spending far more than we make and while a few of our county commissioners find it acceptable to continually use our reserves, that is not sustainable. In the last 10 years we’ve lost 1,500 people (taxpayers) and if that isn’t scary enough, 90 percent of our budget comes from fossil fuels, and natural gas alone is down 74 percent.

I looked carefully at the Sublette County Unified Fire Department, conversing with knowledgeable individuals to try to decipher why the unified fire warden, Shad Cooper, is spending so much money and why the county commissioners are signing off on the expenditures. The reason Mr. Cooper gets what he asks for is because the unified fire department received 1 mil, or a million dollars, from the taxpayers. Mr. Cooper wants to spend it, whether necessary or not, and several of our commissioners can’t say, “No.” It’s hard to understand. Did they all go to a party and a girl jumped out of a cake and Mr. Cooper holds it over their heads?

Prior to the Sublette County Unified Fired Department, this county had six volunteer fire departments that “worked very well.” In 2015, two men decided we needed a unified fire department, with a paid position for a fire warden, and in rode Shad Cooper who makes $92,000 per year. Last year, he kept this wage but didn’t spend all of his time with the fire department to earn it. Instead, he made nearly $26,000 outside the fire department doing Covid-related duties. Did he keep track of his hours and give back what he didn’t earn? I didn’t find that he did.

There’s also a helpmate to Mr. Cooper, ML Baxley, making $71,000 a year, and another position, recently vacated but soon to be filled, paying $78,000. We also have hourly wage workers; one fire investigator, one training officer, one health and safety officer, two prevention officers and six battalion chiefs being paid accumulatively in excess of $53,000 a year. With Mr. Cooper and his assistants, we are doling out nearly $300,000 a year, when remember, just six short years ago, we were not. Is Mr. Cooper unable to do the job without help? I ask because, as I researched, I realized this county is shelling out literally millions of dollars in manpower, buildings, generators, exhaust systems and vehicles, yet we are no busier now than we were 40 years ago. Fires make up merely 24 percent of calls, while the rest are false alarms, incidents or accidents.

The new fire station in Daniel has thus far cost the taxpayers $3.2 million, and we already had one, but is a good example of wasteful spending. Amazingly enough, this facility was mistakenly prepped to go onto the site of the old garbage dump and had to be reconfigured to the present location by Sublette County Road and Bridge, costing over $400,000. Was it the engineers who made the error, and were they punished or asked to pay back any funds? No, and in fact, they’re still on the payroll.

The Daniel facility is getting a $69,000 exhaust system in addition to the already-installed exhaust system. I talked to firemen, retired fire chiefs and diesel truck drivers. They knew of not one person who has ever died from having a diesel truck in a shop, unlike Mr. Cooper who seems to feel men are on their deathbed daily, stating, “If firefighters are breathing diesel exhaust fumes, we’re going to give them cancer.” The men I conversed with said that if trucks are frequently used, they stay aired up. In the instance of our fire trucks, where they aren’t often utilized, it’s slightly different. Since the trucks and engines are in heated shops, while the truck is off, it can be aired up in “a couple of minutes.” Then the doors are opened, the truck is started and backed out or pulled forward. The firefighters then load and go. To be fair, one retired fireman said he thought the exhaust system would have been acceptable if it hadn’t been for the other continuous expenses Mr. Cooper keeps saying is a must.

A recent truck purchase for $342,000 is “supposed” to pay for itself by renting it out for wildland fires. It was ordered months ago, and still hasn’t arrived, and the purchase has been questioned since this expensive vehicle will NOT be taken down city streets, but instead, through mud, ditches, sagebrush, willows and trees. Last week, Mr. Cooper asked for, and the commissioners granted another wish, in the form of another truck, costing nearly $200,000. Again, it won’t get to us for a year and a half due to manufacturing the chassis for it. When I spoke with Mr. Cooper, I asked what his projections for more vehicles would be for the county and he replied, “To replace every single one, and since we have 50, if we only buy one a year, it will take 50 years, and that isn’t acceptable.” Fifty apparatuses in a county of 8,700 people. I’m guessing Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit would be envious.

I found it surprising that on June 4, 2020, we sold a 1999 Freightliner fire truck (engine) to Grant County Fire Department in Moses Lake, Wash., for $65,000. Shockingly, there were only 25,000 miles on that truck. One of the reasons it was sold is it didn’t have airbags. That didn’t seem to be an issue in Moses Lake. We’re selling vehicles and buying new, when the trucks, though older, have not been in high use or have high miles, and I thought I was the only one with the motto, “Buy high-sell low.”

The generators are another contentious subject, costing around $30,000 each (there are much cheaper which will do the same job) and we are placing one in each fire station. The Bondurant facility had a generator, which was an older welder made into a generator, but it worked well, putting the doors up and down and ran the water well, which is exactly what it was supposed to do. It was replaced.

I was asked if anyone knew how many firefighters were in Sublette County prior to 2015, compared to now under the jurisdiction of Mr. Cooper. That’s a difficult number to locate. Mr. Cooper did admit there were far more firefighters on board before he took the warden position. He was quick to point out, in defense, that the reason he’s lost “quite a lot” of people is, “Before 2015, the personnel didn’t attend trainings adequately” and he requires it, “so some quit.” (They must go to 50 percent of meetings, one per month, and to 25 percent of emergency responses). I called retired fire chiefs who said, this was a gross untruth. There were always bylaws and firefighters had to attend trainings or have an excused absence. Then, like now, these people are not paid department employees and they need to make a living, and are only able to go on calls with their employer’s permission. Our county firefighters were/are amazing men and women who have always attended meetings and do their utmost to get out the door when the alarm sounds. When we spoke, Mr. Cooper was cordial to me, but then, he’s not my supervisor. Knowing there is strife between he and his staff, which he denied, I asked if he had an anonymous complaint box that firemen/women might use to air grievances? He said he did not.

This is not a witch hunt. Shad Cooper, along with the yes-men commissioners, need to all take the blame for the spending sprees they’ve become accustomed to. If we keep this pace without a balanced budget, when the reserves are depleted, our taxes will go up. Mark it down.