After hearing pleas from dozens of residents to keep the stations open, the ECCFPD board voted 6-2 to adopt a six-station operational model and close the two stations with the lowest call volume. The district is operating on a $3 million annual deficit, dipping into its $5 million in reserves to pay its bills. Projections show that the reserves will run out before the end of 2012. The closures will save the district $1.4 million per year, Acting Chief Hugh Henderson said Wednesday.
“As difficult as it is, we need to do something now,” said Director Pat Anderson of Oakley. “This model gives the most but still lets us cut back.”
Anderson was joined in voting for the closures by fellow Oakley representatives Jim Frazier and Kevin Romick, as well as Brentwood representatives Chris Becnel, Bob Brockman and EECFPD board President Erick Stonebarger. Director Chris Finetti of Discovery Bay and Robert Kenny of Bethel Island voted no, and Brentwood’s Bob Taylor was absent.
As a result of the closures, which are to take effect July 16, response times could rise significantly. In the area now covered by the Byron station (Station 57), it’s estimated that the current 7.5-minute response could increase to 12 to 14 minutes. In Discovery Bay (Station 58) the times could go from an average of 6.5 minutes to between 9 and 11 minutes.
Prior to the vote, Finetti said the closures would “seriously undermine support” for the new tax that will be needed to save the district, despite the closures. The three-person staffing at some stations could lead to complacency, he warned. “People (in Brentwood and Oakley) need to feel their fire department is truly at risk, just like the people in the outlying areas,” he said. “It’s imperative that all residents of the district feel the pain.”
Finetti favored keeping all eight district stations open, staffed by two firefighters each, as opposed to the six-station model that allows four stations – 52 and 54 in Brentwood, 93 in Oakley and 59 in Discovery Bay – to maintain three-person crews. His motion to that effect failed on a vote of 2-6, Kenny providing the other yes.
Earlier talks also put Bethel Island’s Station 95 on the list of possible closures. As they had at the previous ECCFPD meeting, Islanders turned out in force to lobby for their station. About two-thirds of the 200 people in attendance Tuesday raised their hands when a speaker asked how many were from Bethel Island.
The steady procession of speakers included numerous residents of Discovery Bay, Byron and Knightsen, as well as a few from Brentwood and Oakley. Many pointed out that the move would neither balance the budget nor stave off bankruptcy for more than a few months, while others said revenue enhancements should be sought before stations are closed.
Speakers provided plenty of advice to the board. They suggested that California’s Environmental Quality Act should be consulted prior to closures, that reserve firefighters be used to keep stations open and that the closures be put off at least until after Labor Day to offer better coverage of the inevitable boating accidents near Discovery Bay and Bethel Island.
Some speakers threatened action against the district were Station 95 to be closed. John Gonzales of Knightsen said Brentwood’s fees on new construction could legally be used for fire service, and that the city should “release those funds to the district.”
In response, Brockman said the various factors had been examined several times in the six years since the district was formed out of three smaller districts. Station closures had been discussed on and off for years, he said, blaming the previous fire board – the County Board of Supervisors – for not making hard decisions earlier. The current ECCFPD board took over in February.
“We are looking to do the best we can for the entire district and keep it solvent as long as we can,” he said. “We’re doing what we said should have been done years ago.”
Becnel objected to the implication that Brentwood was withholding money. He said studies had shown that city taxpayers already pay 48 percent of the district’s costs, enough to pay for three stations staffed by three-person crews instead of the two stations and five firefighters there now. The remainder helps subsidize operations in each of the district’s other communities. “I’m OK with that,” Becnel said. “But I very much object to someone saying that Brentwood is withholding money from the fire district.”
Brentwood’s fees can, but are not required to, be used on fire service, as well as police, community facilities, open space, flood control and other uses. Historically, the city has used it to fund police operations. Last year’s $2.8 million total money also helped to build a new Senior Center ($17,000) and expanded library ($150,000).
While all agreed that station closures are difficult to swallow, there are some upsides to the new staffing plan. Operating four stations staffed with three firefighters means improved firefighter safety, and fewer calls will require a two-engine response to get enough people on scene. Henderson said Wednesday that as many as 25 to 30 percent of the district’s calls that currently require a two-engine response will now be able to handled by one.
Henderson also said he was working with American Medical Response, which provides paramedics through its quick response vehicle (QRV) program, to possible rework the deployment of QRVs to offer more coverage to areas affected by station closures.
Also on Tuesday, the board directed staff to return with data on possible revenue enhancements, including special taxes, property assessments and billing out-of-area residents who use the district’s services while in the area. A 2006 study by Citigate Associates, reviewing the district’s operation and laying out possible funding options, will be updated for the board’s August meeting, at which time a strategy and action plan will be developed.
Update: July 8 Correction
A story in last week’s Press reported that the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District would save $1.4 million per year by closing two of its stations. The savings actually came from approval of the entire budget package, of which the station closures were one part. The package also included the elimination of six firefighter positions previously budgeted but currently vacant, and the cancellation of a contract with Cal Fire to keep the rural Sunshine Station (Marsh Creek/Morgan Territory area) open year-round. The district will save $70,000 in station overhead by closing the two far East County locations.