OAKLEY -- Directors of the East Contra Costa Fire District gave the agency's top administrative official a three-year extension on his contract this week -- along with a raise that had them defending their decision in light of the agency's ongoing financial struggles.
The seven board members present at Monday's meeting unanimously agreed to renew Chief Hugh Henderson's contract as well as increase his annual salary from $126,670 to $133,157, a 5.1 percent increase.
Under the terms of his former contract that established a three-tier salary schedule, Henderson was entitled to move from the first step -- what he currently earns -- to the second step in 2011. The following year, the high marks he received from the board in his performance evaluation allowed him to progress to the third step.
Henderson didn't take either opportunity for a raise, however.
Back in 2011, none of the district's three employee unions had received a pay hike in several years, and he wanted the board to settle that matter first, Henderson said.
The firefighters' union eventually negotiated a new contract in July 2013 that brought its members a raise, and the remaining two groups -- a clerical employee and the battalion chiefs -- followed suit last month.
Henderson's new contract, which takes effect June 1, calls for the second-step raise of 5.1 percent to take effect July 1 and the third in July 2015, assuming he continues receiving favorable performance evaluations. At the third tier, he would earn $139,654 annually.
Meanwhile, the district is struggling to keep its remaining five stations open -- it once had eight.
The only reason the agency isn't operating at a deficit is that it still has money remaining from a federal grant it received summer 2010. Those funds dry up on Nov. 17, however, and unless East Contra Costa Fire receives a reprieve between now and then, it will have to close two stations by Dec. 1.
On Monday, board President Joel Bryant who, along with two other directors had recommended renewing the chief's employment agreement, explained the reasons for the pay hike.
By moving Henderson up the salary schedule, the board hopes to be able to attract a replacement if he were to leave, Bryant said.
Even with the raise, Henderson remains the lowest-paid fire chief he's aware of, he added, noting that it would be "nearly impossible" to find someone willing to take over the position for what the district is paying.
"It's a staggering job for one person," said Director Stephen Smith of the multiple duties Henderson performs. "It's amazing what this man has to cover, and he covers it well."
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.