Loomis fire chief accused of double dipping

A Placer County fire chief whose membership on the Loomis Town Council has been challenged as a conflict of interest is facing new allegations.

This time, the state’s public pension giant says Dave Wheeler was unlawfully employed as chief of the Loomis Fire Protection District while collecting a pension from another fire district – a situation commonly referred to as “double dipping.” Wheeler started at the one-station district in 2007 after retiring from the Alameda County Fire Department.

The charge is one of seven findings in a California Public Employees’ Retirement System audit of the Loomis fire district scheduled for release this month. Legal counsel for the fire district, while acknowledging the report’s other findings – mostly concerning issues with the district’s reporting of various pay rates and contributions – notified the pension agency it disagrees with the finding regarding Wheeler.

Wheeler declined to discuss the matter, stating that the audit was not final.

Since Wheeler’s election to the Loomis Town Council in 2012, a small but vocal and well-connected citizens group has challenged the legality of his public service on both the fire district and the Town Council.

Loomis activists William Branch and Janet Thew have formally requested that the California attorney general’s office remove Wheeler from either the council or his fire chief position. They contend that his job as fire chief gives Wheeler a veto power over new developments that other council members do not have. The fire district is not part of the town government, but its area overlaps. The fire district must sign off on any new developments within its boundaries.

The CalPERS report of “double dipping” opens a new front in the back-and-forth that has forced the town’s people to pick sides.

Wheeler’s pension pays $139,338 per year and his fire district job has averaged $61,000 a year, according to state records. The CalPERS audit report was obtained through a public records request by a citizens’ group led by Branch and Thew.

“Amidst all the secrecy, if CalPERS had not released the audit report, we have serious doubts that Loomis taxpayers would have ever learned of this glaring violation of the law,” Branch said. “Instead of acting as public watchdogs, the elected fire board is a good ol’ boys’ network whose immediate response when questioned about a violation of law is to circle the wagons instead of cracking down on abuses.”

The report says that “a retired annuitant was unlawfully employed due to the annuitant’s permanent employment without reinstatement from retirement.”

The fire district was first notified of the apparent violation on Dec. 22, 2010, the agency said. In response, the fire district told the pension agency that Wheeler was a temporary employee, exempt from double-dipping rules.

The pension agency subsequently rejected that argument, pointing out that Wheeler has served as fire chief for more than five years. While Wheeler has been with the district since 2007, the violation didn’t start until 2010, when the district joined the pension program, said Rosanna Westmoreland, a CalPERS spokeswoman.

The fire district then claimed the fire chief’s position was excluded from the pension program. The pension agency responded that participating public bodies are required to cover all employees.

“They were trying to exclude him and under the law they can’t,” said Brad Pacheco, CalPERS’ chief spokesman.

John Shearer, who chairs the five-member board for the Loomis fire district, said the tiny underfunded district is happy to have Wheeler on the job.

“He’s the fire chief, but he is not full time,” Shearer said. “They are saying he has to go, which presents a problem for us.”

He said bringing in a new, full-time chief would cost the district more than $100,000 annually. Wheeler has big-city experience, but works for small-town money, Shearer said.

“Can’t afford it,” he said. “We’re a one-station fire department.”

Shearer said the district’s move to CalPERS was tied to a voter-approved assessment increase aimed at retaining more firefighters.

In a letter responding to the CalPERS allegations, attorney Will Yamada, on behalf of the fire district, writes that the district “disagrees with and opposes” the finding, but does not offer a detailed explanation.

CalPERS officials said the audit was final, but that the benefits arm of CalPERS still must make a determination as to whether Wheeler needs to reimburse the system. If the benefits arm concurs, Wheeler could owe the agency more than two years of pension payments.

Wheeler could appeal that determination.