The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District will ask residents to approve a $197-per-year parcel tax next June to improve service and avoid potentially devastating cuts next year.
The tax, which will generate about $8.6 million pr year, was sent to the ballot Monday on an 8-0 vote (Director Robert Kenny was absent). It will require a two-thirds majority to pass.
The ECCFPD encompasses 250 square miles of East County, including Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay, Byron, Knightsen, Bethel Island and the area near Morgan Territory Road. Because tax-sharing rates were set in 1978 when the area was primarily served by volunteer and part-time firefighters, the ECCFPD receives only 6 cents of each property tax dollar – half of what most full-time districts receive. Plummeting property values have further eroded what the district gets, while the building boom has created the need for a modern, full-time department.
The additional tax will erase the $2.6 million operating deficit now made up with dwindling reserves, which will run out next year. It will also enable the district to expand the less-than-bare-bones service it can now provide. It will place three firefighters on each engine, one of whom will be a paramedic (two of the six district stations are now staffed with two firefighters). The district now provides only basic lifesaving medical service.
The increase will also enable the district to staff a seventh fire station. Last year, the district closed a station in Byron and one in Discovery Bay to cut costs, but it’s unclear at this point when or where the seventh station would open.
“That will be determined by call volume and the needs of the district,” Fire Chief Hugh Henderson said Tuesday. He said he hoped to have the full seven-station/paramedic alignment in place within five years.
If the tax passes, the district will begin receiving the additional funds in December of 2012. All six current stations would be staffed with three firefighters immediately, in January of 2013. The implementation of the paramedic program – which accounts for about $10 (5 percent) of the increase – would also start right away, beginning with training and equipment installation. The first two paramedics would be placed on engines in July of 2013, and incrementally thereafter until 2016, when all engines are expected to have paramedic firefighters on board.
Recognizing that the two-thirds majority required to pass the tax would be hard to achieve, the board on Monday also hired a public relations firm to help explain the tax to voters. The education effort is expected to show not only what the voters will receive for their money, but make certain they know what will happen if the tax doesn’t pass.
“If it fails, you’ve got three (stations),” Director Jim Frazier said Monday night. He was referring to the 3-station, 50-percent service slash needed for the district to live on its current income.
“The board has already explored what living with an $8 million budget means,” Henderson said Tuesday. “I don’t mean to make this a scare tactic; that’s all the money we will have.”
A number of residents on hand at Monday’s meeting said they were anxious to begin informing people about the tax, including Knightsen resident Carolyn Prince. Prince worked for five years as an EMT in far East County for American Medical Response, which currently provides paramedic service in the district. The people providing that service are outstanding, she said, but more are needed.
“I don’t care (about the money); I want the service,” said Prince, adding that she will be paying the tax four times for her four properties. “The money is nothing. Approve it as soon as possible so people like me and my family can educate people on the benefits of this measure.”
Also on board to help spread the word is Oakley resident and Bethel Island firefighter Tom Loccoco, who urged swift action.
“Get the information in concrete as soon as possible,” he said. “There are 100,000 people in our district, and I would like to talk to each and every one of them.”