The severely under-funded district, operating on a $2.5 million annual deficit, serves 250 square miles of East Contra Costa and stands to run out of money by the middle of 2012. Since taking over from the County Board of Supervisors in January of 2010, the district has been run by a nine-member board that includes four Brentwood city councilmen, three Oakley council members and two members from the unincorporated areas of the district.
Earlier this month, the ECCFPD Board unanimously rejected as “legally indefensible” an engineer’s report that was to have been the basis for a $98-per-year, per-parcel benefit assessment that could have kept the ECCFPD afloat.
The rejection of the report means no new revenue will come to the district this year, and the timeline for crafting another revenue measure will bring the district perilously close to insolvency before another solution can be implemented.
As a result, the Brentwood City Council at its May 10 meeting directed city staff to begin the work necessary to apply to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to form its own fire department. Councilman Erick Stonebarger, also the ECCFPD Board chair, said the move amounted to a “Plan B” designed to assure that, should the efforts to save the ECCFPD continue to be fruitless, Brentwood residents would still have fire protection. The LAFCO process is also lengthy, said Stonebarger, hence the need to begin work now on a “parallel track” to the ongoing efforts to save the ECCFPD.
The move triggered an angry response from the Oakley ECCFPD representatives, who felt it showed Brentwood wasn’t fully committed to saving the existing district. They also were concerned that Brentwood’s action, and the subsequent political split in the district, could doom future efforts to pass a district-saving tax.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the Oakley representatives re-affirmed their commitment to the ECCFPD. Vice-mayor Kevin Romick, also a fire board member, said he understands why Brentwood wants to pursue separating from the district, but believes the decision is premature. The district has a year to find a way to stay alive, and he believes that way will be found.
“We’re not done,” Romick said. “We have 12 to 18 months to work out a resolution. We’re not done. Brentwood might be looking for other alternatives outside the district but the remaining five members on this board will be actively looking for other alternatives to solve this crisis. We’re not walking away from it. We’re not throwing our hands up in the air and saying there’s nothing we can do. … There are alternatives and we can solve this.”
Meanwhile, over in Brentwood, the City Council began its discussion by re-iterating that saving the existing district was its first choice. “This is our Plan B,” Stonebarger said. “Our Plan A is to fund the current district.” He acknowledged that the Brentwood representatives had “taken a lot of heat” over the move, and that it had been made without discussing it with the entire ECCFPD first.
“There are Brown Act problems,” he said, referring to the state’s open-meeting laws that, because a quorum of the council sits on the fire board, restrict what it can discuss when not in a publicly posted council meeting. Also, city staff had already run into some delays, re-affirming the need to expedite the matter.
Still, City Manager Donna Landeros told the council that much had been accomplished. Meetings had been held with LAFCO Executive Director Lou Ann Texeira, and a “resource team” of city staff, county officials, and fire service and legal consultants is being formed. Landeros said the process would be long and complex, but that Texeira did not throw cold water on the entire idea of a Brentwood-only department.
“I think she understands our local priority to have a Plan B,” Landeros said. “Plan A has been kicking around for 10 years.”
The ECCFPD was created when the supervisors merged three smaller districts into one in 2001.
Possible Plan B’s were also a topic in Oakley. Council member Randy Pope expressed faith in the ECCFPD but wants to ensure that Oakley residents get ample fire protection should Brentwood’s application be submitted and approved. He suggested that the city also look into the LAFCO process, as well as consulting with CONFire, which serves Antioch, about a possible merger. Mayor Jim Frazier agreed, announcing that he, Romick and City Manager Bryan Montgomery planned to meet with CONFire this week to discuss what the district needs to do to make a merger happen.
Frazier also said he wants to meet with Stonebarger and ask Brentwood to reconsider its position so that the district appears as a united front. “We need to send a clear and concise message as a district and let the people make the determination of what kind of services they want,” Frazier said.
“It’s their decision. Do they want pay more to the fire district or do they want to pay more to their insurance company? That’s just the way it goes. Giving them the clear message is what we have to do.”
The next ECCFPD board meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Oakley City Hall, 3231 Main St.