The plan, worked up by the board’s Ad Hoc Committee, would eliminate the district’s $3-plus million annual operating deficit, increase staffing to three firefighters in all district stations (two stations are currently staffed by only two people), increase the number of stations back to the eight that existed prior to last year’s closure of two, and place a paramedic on each of the engines. Paramedic services in the district are currently provided by American Medical Response as part of the company’s contract with Contra Costa County.
The total price tag for the plan would be $16.7 million, twice the $8.2 million the district currently brings in. The district’s share of property taxes was established when fire service in the area was provided largely by volunteers. Plummeting property values have also severely impacted revenue.
The district currently spends about $12 million per year. The difference is now made up by reserves, but those will run out by the middle of next year.
Fire Chief Hugh Henderson hopes to finalize the precise numbers before the board meets again. “My goal for the Sept. 12 meeting is for them to say yes, we are putting it on the ballot, and here’s the date,” Henderson said. “I’m hoping we can keep the (tax amount) under $200, and then work hard to inform the community and get those services in place as soon as possible.”
The board also received a report from its Executive Committee (EC) showing just how bad things could be if the new tax, which will require a two-thirds majority, doesn’t pass. That committee found that, based only on the money the district now receives, fire service would be drastically impacted. Staffing would drop from 48 personnel to 23, only four stations with two firefighters each would remain open to serve the 250-square mile district, and response times could increase to 10 to 12 minutes from the current eight.
That scenario, decried as unworkable by virtually everyone, would probably result in higher fire insurance rates or possibly the cancellation of some policies. A number of speakers at Monday’s meeting noted that insurance increases could easily total more than the proposed parcel tax.
Other speakers said the new tax would be at least partially offset by the decrease most property owners have already seen in their property taxes as a result of the ongoing economic slump.
The board also heard from the EC about an alternative plan that would divide the district into various zones and provide the same, minimal coverage to each. The zones could then decide independently if they wanted improved service, and tax themselves accordingly.
That plan, which includes the two-person staffing model, has been panned by members of firefighter union Local 1230, as has a plan to augment coverage using part-time, paid-on-call firefighters. On Monday, the board rejected a request by the EC to hire consultants to flesh out the zone plan, although the committee was told to continue working on it.
As with last month’s fire board meeting, a shouting match erupted during the discussion of a four-station scenario. Director Bob Brockman’s comment that firefighters must be more active in reaching out to the public to get the tax passed triggered an angry response from a firefighter who accused the board of moving too slowly in putting together the information needed to do so. The firefighter then stormed from the packed meeting room as other firefighters stood at their seats supporting their colleague.
According to Director Joel Bryant, although the final numbers haven’t been precisely pinned down, the time is now to start getting the word out that the district is in severe trouble.
“Most of the community is unaware of the danger,” he said. “We don’t need to wait to start making some noise.”