The cash-strapped district is currently operating at a $2 million annual deficit, spending reserves to augment its $12 million annual budget. The district is forecast to run out of money in 2012 unless voters agree to pay more.
Last month, the board discussed possible revenue enhancements and is leaning toward establishing a benefit assessment district, which is expected to be the subject of an election by mail in June. The details of the assessment are still being worked out.
The current board took control of the district from the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) last January. In addition to putting the district on a solid financial footing, one of the goals discussed at the time was to have the board of directors elected by district residents. The current board is made up of nine members appointed by the BOS: four directors from Brentwood, three from Oakley and two from the unincorporated areas of far East County (currently, residents of Bethel Island and Discovery Bay).
On Tuesday, virtually every director said that while willing to relinquish his seat to a directly elected member, now is not the time to pursue that plan.
“The issue right now isn’t that this board isn’t being run right; it’s that we have a revenue problem,” said Director Jim Frazier, also the mayor of Oakley. “How does spending taxpayer’s money (on a board election) help with the budget?”
Moving to an elected board would cost up to $190,000 and require two elections. The first would ask residents if they want an elected board. Following voter approval, the second election would choose the directors. Election law timelines would require the first vote to come before the vote on an assessment. The vote to elect the directors would come after the assessment vote, leaving open the possibility that, if the tax were rejected, new directors with little background on the district would immediately be faced with a broken financial picture and bleak prospects for fixing it.
Directors Chris Finetti (Discovery Bay) and Bob Brockman (Brentwood) noted that the intention to institute an elected board had been a major point as the district’s current administrative setup was being crafted. Finetti also said he did not feel the current arrangement served the unincorporated areas of the district well, and was hopeful that a reconstituted board, perhaps with fewer directors, might be better.
But with the anticipated difficulty of convincing district residents to pass an additional assessment, coupled with the possibility that a statewide tax measure would also soon be put to a vote, the directors reached a consensus that a two-part board election would create confusion and diminish the prospects of a successful vote on an assessment.
Also, Director Kevin Romick (Oakley) said that although establishing an elected board was discussed at length, nothing in the district’s formation documents “dictates, asks or even suggests” that an elected board was required.
Vince Wells, the president of firefighter union Local 1230, said he also believes pursuing both goals simultaneously is a bad idea. He asked the board to either go after the assessment or the elected board first. That strategy would reduce confusion, he said, and give the board the ability to frame the tax issue carefully enough to increase its chances of success.
The board agreed to continue its work on solving the financial crisis, and if the assessment is passed, to immediately begin the process of installing an elected board. The decision was partly due to the current board’s reluctance to pass the crisis along to another group of people, who would then need to get ramped up on the issues even as the district’s financial house collapsed.
“That’s a little frightening,” said Pat Anderson (Oakley). “I don’t want to pass this along. I’m not done trying to make this work.”
The board will meet again next week to further discuss the details of the needed revenue enhancement.