Sutter County Fire faces dire situation, report says

Area schools and jail pose concerns, grand jury reports

After taking a year off for undisclosed reasons, the Sutter County Grand Jury released a report of its findings from its investigations in 2018-2019. This year’s report covers what’s described as a dire situation facing one Sutter County Fire Department service area, needed improvements at area schools, and concerns over the county’s jail facility and sheriff’s office.

The report was submitted to and approved by Sutter County Superior Court Judge Susan E. Green at the end of May and filed by the court on June 28. To view the document, go to https://www.suttercourts.com/general-info/grand-jury/reports.

Fire Department

Grand jury members highlighted the fact that Sutter County Fire Department, County Service Area F (CSA-F) – a 254-square-mile unincorporated area located just north and south of Yuba City – is facing dire challenges due to shortfalls in revenue and staffing, in addition to aging and failing emergency vehicles.

The service area has been the subject of past grand jury reports over concerns of staffing, renovations and installation of safety equipment. The CSA-F was formed in 1996 when the Live Oak Fire Department, Oswald-Tudor Fire Department and the Sutter Fire Department were consolidated. 

“CSA-F is in dire straits and the citizens of Sutter County need to be informed immediately. To prevent loss of life and future injuries, in accordance with National Fire Protection Agency 1710 guidance, staffing, equipment and structural issues need to be resolved. CSA-F is dangerously understaffed and alarmingly underfunded,” the report stated. 

The grand jury found that a Special Fire Tax for the district – one of three primary funding sources – was established in 1997 without an inflation index, resulting in the current situation where annual expenditures are surpassing recurring revenue. Because of a lack of funding, staff levels have been compromised, resulting in safety risks for fire personnel and citizens, and volunteers are becoming harder and harder to find. 

Firefighter injuries have also resulted in significant increases in workers compensation claims over recent years – costs in 2015 were $64,347 compared to the last fiscal year’s estimate of $275,171, or an increase of 328 percent. 

In addition to aging infrastructure, the Oswald-Tudor station needs an extensive remodel, which includes an extension of the building bays to accommodate newer equipment and a third exhaust ventilation system.

The grand jury recommended supervisors reassess the service area’s revenue stream and special fire tax by the end of the year and consider adding it to the county’s general fund. Other recommendations included the county forgiving the remaining balance of a loan to construct a fire station; and for the district to address its staffing and safety issues. 

Schools

The 2016-2017 grand jury report observed areas at several schools within the Yuba City Unified School District in need of repair, including roof leaks, exposed wood and cracks in pavement. This year’s group went back to follow up and found that most of the findings had been resolved at the schools, which included Andros Karperos Elementary School, Barry Elementary School, Gray Avenue Middle School, Park Avenue Elementary School, Riverbend Elementary School and River Valley High School. 

However, the recent report found that Andros Karperos has a roof leak in the gym and that removal of gutters from the school’s modular buildings has caused water to pool into puddles behind the building and has damaged the eaves. Jurors noted the school needed cleaning as well. While at Barry Elementary School, faculty members raised concerns over the number of tractor-trailers utilizing Barry Road to access Highway 99. Also, the grand jury found that Gray Avenue is still in need of a gym. 

They recommended Andros Karperos replace its gym roof within one year and reinstall the gutters with gutter screens before the start of the school year. They recommended the school’s staff come up with a plan to maintain cleanliness on the campus as well; that a traffic safety analysis be conducted on Barry Road by the start of the school year and that Gray Avenue add a new gym to its project list within six months. 

Grand jury members also toured Bridge Street Elementary School, where they noted safety concerns – issues with a street crossing on a heavily traveled Bridge Street, and a potential issue with the lack of railing along the steps leading down to the library. 

They recommended the school district reassess the inadequate parking and pick-up/drop-off area at the school, to conduct a study to find an additional method to cross Bridge Street safely and to install additional railing on the steps leading to the library by the end of the year.

Jail/sheriff’s office

Grand juries are required to look into the condition and management of a public detention facility annually if one is located within its jurisdiction. The Sutter County grand jury found that improvements to the county’s jail and a change to contract health care are resulting in improvements for both housing and medical care of local inmates. That being said, they also highlighted some areas of concern regarding officer and inmate safety and the educational classes provided to the inmates. 

The grand jury found that one of the classes provided to inmates to help them obtain their GED currently does not have an instructor, meaning it is not being offered at the time the report was being worked on. They also observed a lack of designated classroom space for inmates.

Another area of concern raised by the grand jury was with an area at the facility where inmates are brought into and out of the jail, which is unsecured and accessible to the public.

They recommended the county and the sheriff’s department hire an instructor for the GED class, find and dedicate additional classroom space, build a secured fence between the sheriff’s office and the jail facility and install an automatic gate at the entrance of one vulnerable point by the beginning of 2020. 

In addition to touring the jail, the grand jury inspected the sheriff’s office. 

They raised concerns about the storage and handling of evidence and the outdated computer system that is being used to track evidence, in addition to a lack of secured parking for deputies and personnel.

The sheriff’s department has recently undergone construction upgrades that have resulted in the elimination of adequate storage space for property and evidence. 

Because the main evidence room has exceeded its available space, the department is utilizing storage containers outside, which do not have the electronic safety measures in place to document when records are viewed and by whom. 

The grand jury also noted that the department’s Chain of Command had not been trained on evidence unit procedures, which could lead to a backlog of untagged evidence or evidence being lost. That issue is compounded by the fact that the department’s computers and software system are outdated. 

Their recommendations included expanding or relocating the evidence room to meet professional standards; having property officers and management attend classes about maintaining those standards; implement auditing practices to better track evidence; to hire an independent auditing agency annually; upgrade computer system and evidence tracking software; and provide secured, designated parking for department employees.

July 2, 2019

Appeal-Democrat

By Jake Abbott

County: