After receiving a report comparing the cost of having the district run by the California Department of Forestry (CDF) versus the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD), representatives of Brentwood, Knightsen and Oakley were expected to recommend contracting with CDF, whose costs were projected to be $1.7 million less than ECCFPD once the district builds out to 10 stations in the next few years.
The comparison, however, was based on a model that did not include a paramedic in each station, which was one of the assumptions contained in a Citigate report on fire operations completed earlier this year. The paramedic component was dropped for the time being when officials decided it was more than the district could afford without passing an additional tax.
Including paramedics "would be the ultimate goal," ECCFPD Interim Fire Chief Bill Weisgerber said in presenting the comparison report. By adopting a model that puts three firefighters in the district's four busiest stations now, and then adding paramedic service and more firefighters in the future - when the economy improves and the public might be more receptive to a tax - building the district would be like building a house. "We'd lay the foundation first," he said, "then build a house on it."
Firefighters opposed to a CDF contract, however, expressed dismay that Working Group members were reportedly ready to make a recommendation in favor of CDF, and said the idea of going for a tax sooner rather than later should not have been discarded. Vince Wells, vice president of United Professional Firefighters Local 1230 which represents ECCFPD fire fighters, said that it's premature to assume voters would reject a new levy.
"That might not be what we're looking at," Wells said. "With public input, we might be able to" pay for the service outlined in the Citigate report, Wells added.
Responding to numerous calls for public input from firefighters who packed the meeting room to overflowing, County Supervisors Mary Piepho and Federal Glover promised a "wide open public process" before a final decision is made. There were then several suggestions on how the informational process should proceed.
Suggestions included adding the costs of paramedics to the current model, considering non-personnel costs such as station location and equipment needs, factoring in $600,000 in unfunded retirement liabilities the ECCFPD currently has, and checking with other communities currently contracting with CDF to see if they're satisfied with the service.
It was also suggested that the Contra Costa Consolidated Fire District, which was previously eliminated from the process due to cost considerations, be asked to revise its estimate based on the non-paramedic model.
Weisgerber said he would put additional information together in the coming weeks, in time for a series of public meetings to be held beginning in January. The outcome of those meetings will then be reported directly to the supervisors, as the Master Plan Working Group was disbanded after last week's meeting.
Piepho said she hopes the process will be completed in time for a decision to be made by March 1. Some observers, though, are frustrated by the fact that the district has been working since 2002 to figure out how the district will be run, and think last week's developments mean another lengthy delay.
"The supervisors have just delayed this whole thing another year," said John Gonzales, a Knightsen member of the Master Plan Working Group.