“They consider the service adequate, but I don’t know where you can find anyone in the district who thinks that,” said East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Chief Hugh Henderson. “I haven’t heard that in any of our community meetings.”
Due to plummeting property tax revenue and a tax-sharing structure established when fire service in far East County was provided mostly by volunteers, the ECCFPD is currently operating at a $2 million annual deficit. The reserves now being used to keep the district afloat will run out in about six months.
The district is considering placing a $197-per-parcel property tax on the ballot in June to avoid having to close three of it's remaining six stations and lay off half its 48 firefighters. The district has virtually no equipment replacement fund, operates at least two stations with inadequate crew quarters (Station 95 in Bethel Island has been condemned for toxic mold), and runs two of its six engines with two firefighters instead of the industry standard three.
According to the report, however, “The Grand Jury has validated that the level of service provided with the current operating structure meets the needs of the residents of the District. There has been no loss of life or property directly attributable to the service levels provided through the current operating structure. … From a quality of service point of view, the current operating structure is adequate.”
“They say our operation is adequate because no one has died,” said ECCFPD Board President Kevin Romick. “This is a politically motivated witch hunt to prove the property tax wasn’t necessary. Why don’t they rely on previous (2008) Grand Jury findings, or the county’s Municipal Service Review, or the 2006 Citigate report?” Romick said.
Each of those reports examined the ECCFPD and concluded that staff levels were too low and additional tax revenue was needed, even before the recession hit and two of the eight district stations were closed.
The report says the district should also consider reducing firefighter retirement benefits as a cost-saving measure. Henderson could not say whether those benefits were being discussed because the contract with firefighters’ union Local 1230 expired last November, and the ongoing negotiations are confidential. He noted, however, that ECCFPD wages are already 40 to 60 percent lower than elsewhere in the county.
Romick also took issue with the report’s recommendations, including that the board consider other service models and how much is needed to maintain them. Romick said the board has already discussed paid-on-call staffing as well as annexation to the county’s ConFire district, and revised the plan for seeking a tax increase several times under the various scenarios.
“These numbers weren’t just pulled out of the sky,” Romick said. “A great deal of work went into this. We started at $97, then $187, just to provide a stopgap measure. The public said, ‘We don’t want a stopgap measure; we want the problem fixed.’ So we’re at the $197.”
The report also calls for the district to consider getting a proposal from the state’s CalFire, an idea considered in 2006 but rejected in part because it meant transferring control of the district to the state, Romick said.
“We’ve seen the state in action,” he said. “The whole budget process in the state is messed up.”
The report also recommends that the district develop a plan of what it will do in the event a tax is requested and rejected. That, Romick said, has also been done and made public.
“It should be sufficient to say we’ll be running on three stations and with half the crew,” he said.
Henderson said a detailed response to the Grand Jury report is being developed, and will be discussed at the next fire board meeting, to be held next Monday, Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Oakley City Council Chambers, 3231 Main St.
The complete Grand Jury report can be downloaded by clicking here.