The measure, which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, got only 6,193 Yes votes, or 44 percent of the 14,216 votes cast.
“Right now, it’s clear a super-majority of voters aren’t willing to pay for additional services, so now we have our marching orders and will work with the budget we have, providing the best service possible, even as we are forced to vote on what stations to close and how many firefighters to lay off,” ECCFPD Board President Kevin Romick wrote in a press release. “We simply wanted to give voters a choice and we feel we did that in a straightforward and transparent process.” The district’s $12 million budget must be cut to $8 million to make ends meet.
A disappointed Fire Chief Hugh Henderson said the board next week will consider two alternatives developed earlier as a contingency should Measure S fail. One is a three-station model staffing three firefighters at each, which would place nine firefighters on duty at all times in the district. The other is a four-station model staffing two firefighters at each, putting a total of eight firefighters on duty.
“Neither service model is going to make anybody happy,” Henderson said Wednesday. “We have to just put the best service out there we can.”
According to Oakley resident Dave Roberts, an outspoken opponent of the tax, the defeat of Measure S was not surprising, given the state of the economy and the massive pension debt facing the district.
“Had the fire district done everything it could to cut costs, the voters might have looked more favorably on this significant tax hike,” said Roberts. Freezing salaries, cutting overtime, reducing pensions and hiring more paid-on-call firefighters all should be on the table for possible reductions, he said, as should investigating the hiring of a private-sector fire protection service.
“Whichever course the district chooses, it won’t be easy,” Roberts added. “But just as over-taxed taxpayers have had to tighten their belts, so should the government.”
Measure S supporters who gathered at a local restaurant Tuesday evening to watch returns come in were saddened by the results and shocked at the size of the defeat. President Vince Wells of firefighter Union Local 1230 believes a critical public-safety problem was overwhelmed when the discussion turned from the short-term effort to keep stations open to the long-term need for benefit reform.
“Unfortunately, a message got out there that this was about pensions,” Wells said. “Hopefully, another plan will come forward, but I’m not optimistic they will have anything in place too soon.”
As many as 19 firefighters are facing layoffs, including Kalani Dillon, a captain at Bethel Island’s Station 95, which is expected to be one of the stations closed. It is the loss of so many dedicated locals, many of whom served as paid-on-call firefighters for years prior to becoming full-timers, that is most upsetting.
“It’s not the money and it’s not pensions,” he said. “It’s all the local boys who are losing their jobs. Some of us have turned down better-paying jobs in other departments to stay and serve this community, and then this happens. It hurts.”
Henderson said next week’s fire board meeting would decide which stations would close, and that a final budget required to implement the changes would go before the board for a vote on June 25. Layoffs and station closures would take effect on July 1.
“As chief, I couldn’t be any prouder of the firefighters who have continued to put in 110 percent through all of this,” Henderson said, adding that that the stiff-upper-lip attitude that has long maintained morale in the chronically underfunded department has taken a huge hit.
“This,” Henderson said, “was overwhelming.”