On a 6-2 vote, the district board zeroed in on the goals of staffing its six current stations with three firefighters each (two stations, Knightsen and Bethel Island, currently staff only two firefighters); establishing a paramedic program at two as-yet unnamed stations; partially funding a new communication system and other equipment needs; and eliminating a $2.8 million annual operating deficit that threatens the district with insolvency next year.
The improvements and deficit elimination would cost about $4 million per year, which a new benefit assessment district levy of about $96 for the average single-family home would provide. A recent poll shows that 55 percent of the district’s residents would be willing to support that much, but no more.
The plan left significant holes in what residents would like to see. For example, it does not include re-opening either the Discovery Bay or Byron stations that were closed last year due to a lack of funding. Discovery Bay residents forcefully informed the board during the workshop that re-opening the stations would be needed to win votes there.
“If you really want their support, you have to commit in advance and say you’re going to re-open those stations,” said Jeff Barber.
That option, which would cost about $1.2 million per station, did not make the list, however. ECCFPD Board Chair Erick Stonebarger of Brentwood said that according to the most recent tax figures, Discovery Bay pays $1.4 million per year to the district for its single station, and he felt he could not sell the assessment to Brentwood voters if it included spending more money there.
Stonebarger went on to say that Discovery Bay currently has the best service in the district, per capita. The one station there serves a community of 15,000, while Brentwood’s two stations serve a population of 56,000 (28,000 people per station), and Oakley’s one station serves 35,000.
Stonebarger’s comments brought an angry response from Discovery Bay CSD board member Brian Dawson, who accused Stonebarger of thinking about Brentwood rather than the district as a whole. “I have a list of 3,500 e-mail addresses, and I’m going to tell them all what you just said,” Dawson said during one of three public comment periods at the workshop. “I don’t think you know how loud we are (in Discovery Bay),” he added.
Others at the meeting felt the district should ask for enough to meet all the district’s needs, including additional pay for firefighters. Director Robert Kenny of Bethel Island said the district should ask for what it needs one time, and make a major public relations effort to sell the public on it.
“If we’re going to raise taxes, we ought to do it at one time and do it right,” he said. “We should go for what we need.”
Although the total needed to do that has not been calculated, the consultants advising the board strongly advised against exceeding the psychological barrier of $100 per single-family home if they wanted voters to approve the assessment.
And while all the board members said they wanted the best for their residents and employees, it was clear that should the assessment fail, so would the district. The consensus was reached that the most important thing was to keep the district afloat.
“We’re in survival mode,” said Director Kevin Romick of Oakley. “People have to understand that if this fails, we will shut down two more stations and lay off 12 more firefighters. Do we want to survive or do we ask for the moon at this time? My concern is that we survive, and continue to fight the battle another day.”
All the directors agreed that informing the public of the district’s needs and the consequences of failure would be key to getting a measure passed. The effort’s timeline was adjusted to allow a maximum amount of time to reach out to the public before sending out ballots for the mail-in election on June 1. At the request of Director Jim Frazier of Oakley, the board agreed to obtain proposals from public relations firms that might help pass the measure, in addition to the $25,000 worth of guidance the district has already paid for.
The election must be successfully completed before Aug. 10 in order to begin generating tax revenue in December. If the deadline is missed, it will be December of 2012 before tax dollars from another measure could begin flowing to the district, about six months after the reserves currently floating the district run out.
The board ordered the completion of the detailed engineer’s report the assessment would be based on, and asked that it be brought back to them for a final decision on April 4. Minor adjustments could be made at that point, or the board could decide against any assessment at all.
Stonebarger, Robert Brockman, Steve Barr and Joel Bryant of Brentwood, plus Oakley’s Pat Anderson and Romick voted to proceed at the $96 level and the $4 million for improvements. Director Frazier of Oakley and Kenny voted no.