The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District board this week urged residents to weigh in on a controversial Grand Jury report calling far East County fire service “adequate” and recommending further study and public discussion before a new tax is sought.
The call for public reaction came as the fire board discussed its responses to the report, which recommends that the district also “consider other available operating structure alternatives before deciding on a ballot measure.”
“The report was meant to drive conversation amongst the residents to ask more questions, and come away with a decision they can live with and respect,” said Lloyd Bell, foreman of the 2011-12 Contra Costa Grand Jury that issued the Dec. 22 report. The report also recommends considering a possible contract with the state’s Calfire to provide services, negotiating a reduction in firefighter benefits as a cost-cutting measure, and presenting to the public alternative service models and associated costs. It also suggests the district develop a “viable service alternative” in the event a new tax measure fails and revenues remain unchanged.
On Monday, fuming fire board members, supported by comments from the public, said each of those points had been addressed in public meetings since the board was seated in 2010, or was currently being done. President Kevin Romick said the issues had also been addressed by previous reviews of ECCFPD operations, including a 2006 report by outside consulting firm Citigate, a 2009 Municipal Service Review conducted by Contra Costa County, and a 2008 Grand Jury report triggered by the loss of three homes in Bethel Island. Each of those reviews concluded the district was underfunded and required a tax increase to add manpower and improve service.
Bell said the Grand Jury had been observing the district in its monthly board meetings since July of 2011 and had conducted interviews of a number of board members. Since the earlier reports had not been publically discussed in detail during its six-month investigation, the Grand Jury did not consider those findings, he said.
The district currently operates with a $2.4 million annual deficit. Cash reserves used to make up the difference will run out in about six months, and the district is considering placing a $197-per-parcel property tax on the June ballot.
Although the final form of the ballot measure is still being finalized, the intention is to use the additional revenue to increase staffing to the industry-standard three firefighters per station, place paramedics on each engine and reopen at least one of the two stations shuttered last year to save money. The revenue would also provide funds needed to replace equipment and engines, and make improvements to provide adequate living quarters for firefighters (crew members in Bethel Island’s condemned Station 95 currently sleep in FEMA trailers).
Aside from the Grand Jury’s first finding – that without additional revenue the district can’t be sustained even as is – board members found little to agree with.
“We’re asked to agree, somewhat agree, or disagree, right?” Director Erick Stonebarger asked as the required responses to the report were being discussed Monday. “Do we have the ability to respond with an ‘absolutely ridiculous’?”
Vince Wells, president of firefighters union Local 1230, said he agreed with another of the report’s points: that a detailed service model based only on current revenue be developed. The district has determined that continuing to operate on money it now receives would result in the closure of three more of its six stations and the layoff of half its 48 firefighters, but Wells believes the public should be better informed about just what that means.
“It could mean we no longer respond for things like odor investigations or spilled gasoline,” he said. Noting that five engines and 15 firefighters are usually dispatched to structure fires, efforts to extinguish such blazes could be seriously impaired waiting for units from other districts to arrive.
“We’ll be putting out fires from the outside (of burning buildings). Those buildings will be gone,” he said. Such conditions, he added, would also put more strain on nearby districts that augment coverage through the existing automatic aid system, which could see modifications if a tax fails and ECCFPD’s needs increase due to more station closures.
ECCFPD Chief Hugh Henderson said a detailed plan for operating with only existing revenue was already in the works, and would be presented as part of the district’s ongoing series of town hall meetings being held throughout the district. The next town hall meeting takes place at Oakley City Hall next Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 6:30 p.m., followed by a meeting in Bethel Island’s Scout Hall on Jan. 19, also at 6:30 p.m.
Also on Monday, the board responded to concerns heard at earlier town hall meetings about the proposed tax’s maximum 5-percent annual increase meant to offset inflation and mounting, unfunded retirement liabilities. It directed staff to recalculate projections based on limiting any future increases to the cost-of-living index or 3 percent, whichever is lower. A report on how that would impact the district budget over the next 10 years will be brought back to the board for consideration at its February meeting.
The board will also finalize its response to the Grand Jury at February’s meeting, and has invited public comment to be submitted so it can be included. “Send us an e-mail, write a letter to the editor, post on the Internet,” Romick said. “We’ll attach the responses and send them in with ours.”
E-mails may be sent to email@example.com. The full Grand Jury report can be found on the Grand Jury’s website, www.