About 30 district residents turned out to hear a presentation from the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Chief Hugh Henderson, along with ECCFPD Board President Kevin Romick, board member Bob Kenny and Discovery Bay resident Bob Mankin.
The session began with some sobering realities. Plummeting property values and a tax-sharing formula established in 1978 has prevented the district from keeping up with the increased demand for services. Two of the district’s eight stations were closed last year, and funds were eliminated for replacement engines, fire station maintenance, weed abatement programs and other preventative operations.
Nevertheless, the district spent $2.8 million more than it took in last year, making up the difference with reserves.
Those reserves, however, are about to run out. If additional revenue is not found, next July the district will be forced to close three more stations and lay off half its 48 firefighters, leaving three stations (one each in Brentwood, Discovery Bay and Oakley) and 24 firefighters to protect the 250-square-mile district’s 105,000 residents.
Following Henderson’s state-of-the-district update, one audience member asked if full-time staffing could be augmented by volunteers or paid-on-call (POC) firefighters, such as those the district depended on prior to the building boom.
“In the 1980s and ’90s, those programs worked well,” Henderson said. “But people stopped living and working in the area, and call volumes are higher.” The district now handles about 20 calls per day. Combined with required training of about 24 hours a month, the need was more than POCs could commit to, and the last station fully staffed by POCs – Knightsen – went to full-time staffing five years ago.
“We couldn’t depend on the fact that that engine was going to respond every time,” said Henderson. A full-time crew of two firefighters has been stationed at Knightsen since 2006.
Others in the audience raised questions about automatic increases in the proposed tax and whether those would be imposed for a defined term. Henderson said the measure’s final wording was still being completed, but that it would likely include a 5-percent annual escalator for inflation and increasing retirement costs. As currently envisioned, he said, the tax would not contain a sunset clause due to the uncertain economy and the dim prospects for passing another tax in the near future should costs continue to rise.
Discovery Bay CSD President Kevin Graves said that because last year’s station closures took place in Discovery Bay and Byron, he wanted to know that the new tax would mean the re-opening of one of those stations. Henderson responded that the plan called for a seventh district station to open in five years, but in a location determined by the call volume and response times in the district at that time. Discovery Bay currently contributes $1.5 million in taxes to the district. It requires $1.9 million to operate each of the district’s current stations, including Discovery Bay’s current Station 59 on Bixler Road.
Meetings will continue to be held throughout the district between now and the planned election next June. Oakley will host the next general community meeting on Jan. 17 at Oakley City Hall.