“The public needs to be aware that we have to deal with a $2.9 million deficit, and there’s a likelihood to cut positions and a potential to cut stations,” said Erick Stonebarger, chairman of the ECCFPD Board. “We need community input. They need to get involved.”
The ECCFPD covers 250 square miles of East Contra Costa, including Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay and virtually everything east of Antioch. At its May 3 meeting, the newly appointed board – seated in February after the County Board of Supervisors relinquished its long-standing control over the district – received an expected but nevertheless gloomy report from Acting Fire Chief Hugh Henderson. The district’s property tax revenue plunged almost 20 percent during the fiscal year ending in June and is expected to drop 10 percent more next year. The district has used reserves to make up the difference, but by the middle of 2011 that money will run out.
Nearly all of the district’s income comes from property tax. Because fire protection in far East County was provided primarily by paid-on-call (POC) volunteers when the rates were established, the district now receives less than half the percentage received by other fire districts in the county.
Stonebarger believes that increasing revenue by passing another tax would be a hard sell at this point: “I don’t think it would be responsible for us to go out and ask for money until we can prove we can manage our own budget.”
That means cuts are needed to keep the already bare-bones district solvent. Six of the district’s stations are currently staffed by two firefighters, and two are staffed by three. (The industry standard is three per station).
Stonebarger said station closures could be accompanied by a personnel shift that would improve coverage at remaining stations. The 48 positions the final budget will include could provide three-person coverage at the four urban stations (Stations 52 and 54 in Brentwood, Station 93 in Oakley and Station 59 in Discovery Bay) and two-person coverage at two stations (Station 94 in Knightsen and either Station 57 in Byron, Station 58 in Discovery Bay or Station 95 on Bethel Island). Because four firefighters are required to be on the scene before entry is made into a structure fire, a battalion chief and one engine could begin an attack that now must often wait until the arrival of a second engine.
Alternatives to permanent station closures could include closing stations one day per week in rotation, an option Stonebarger said doesn’t make sense given the significantly different roles each station currently plays (Station 93, for example, responded to more than 1,800 calls last year, while station 57 answered fewer than 300).
Relying more on the POC staffing utilized in years past also doesn’t make sense in today’s world, Stonebarger said. Even the least active station (57) receives nearly one call per day, and the busiest (93) more than five, volumes too high to effectively cover with volunteer, part-time crews. Also, relying on POCs, who must drive to the station to pick up an engine, would increase response times.
A third option discussed during a series of public meetings in 2006 was to hire CalFire, the state’s primary wildland fire service, which has contracted with other cities. Stonebarger said that the loss of local control, firefighter turnover brought on by CalFire’s 72-hour shift schedule plus the loss of firefighters who live in and know the ECCFPD territory make that option undesirable.
“I don’t think it’s on our current radar screen to look at CalFire,” he said.
Discovery Bay CSD Treasurer Brian Dawson said that the possible closure of both Station 58 and Station 57 could have a huge impact on his community. “I’d like to see the (ECCFPD) board do everything humanly possible, up to and including a ballot measure, before they talk about closures,” he said. He hopes to see a strong public turnout at the June 7 meeting.
The meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. in the Oakley City Council Chambers, 3231 Main St.
To view the ECCFPD documents, click the following links:
Summary District Wide Costs Expenditures Revenue Additional Charges