As the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) continues to seek solutions to its funding woes, at least three community-suggested options appear to be off the table – for now.
The district’s legal team this week released an analysis that downplayed the feasibility of the district declaring a state of emergency or relying on property-tax revenue reallocation measures.
“This is truly just an opportunity to talk through the issues,” said Shayna van Hoften, legal counsel for the district. “These are issues that have been the subject of discussion.”
The ECCFPD, which comprised eight stations in 2008, is down to just three stations to serve nearly 115,000 residents over 249 square miles. The problem stems almost entirely from the district’s property-tax allocation being set with the approval of Proposition 13 in 1978 when volunteer departments were sufficient to cover all of East County.
The grassroots organization East County Voters for Equal Protection (EVC) has publicly advocated that the district declare a local emergency under the California Emergency Services Act, which the group states was written into law as a tool for public servants who find themselves in a situation in which they are unable to provide adequate public services.
However, van Hoften said only a city or county – or a city and a county together – can declare a state of local emergency. Examples of local emergencies under the act include air pollution, fire, flood, epidemic, riot and drought.
“There is often rhetorical value in using words like ‘emergency,’ and there is certainly no legal prohibition against doing that,” van Hoften said. “However, there is also no legal vehicle for this board to take any sort of enforceable action to declare a state or condition of emergency.”
Van Hoften has previously expressed concern about another ECV plan that calls for all property tax-receiving agencies in ECCFPD’s coverage area – including Brentwood and Oakley, the county and several special districts – to permanently shift 5.2 percent of their allocated funds to the district over the course of three or four years. That money would be sufficient for the district to operate six stations without raising district residents’ taxes.
To avoid violating the law, that plan cannot impact school district funding, according to a legal memo prepared for the district.
Another concern expressed in the memo is a prohibition against agencies that go through with the transfer increasing their rates, license or user fees to make up the difference in the property tax they have given to the district. In addition, the transferring agencies couldn’t cut hours or stop conducting services because of the effects of the revenue transfer.
Hal Bray, ECV co-chair, said he felt the legal analysis released this week reflects the opinion of a district that accepts low funding, below-average compensation for its employees and poor services for its residents.
“We (ECV) are going to stay here, and we are going to help you fund this district,” he told the board.
The district’s legal team also shot down a call for the district to create an Emergency Service Additional Revenue District, which would borrow or enable the district to borrow money from the state for emergency services. The board would be governed by representatives of various agencies receiving property tax from parcels in the district’s service area.
A few of the concerns about the proposal include significant legislative hurdles, including a simple majority vote of both houses of the legislature and approval of the governor just for the district to launch; questions of whether the new district could transfer substantial additional revenue to the district; and concerns that the process could hamper other agencies.
“We are limited in what we can do, absent Sacramento acting for us,” van Hoften said.
Oakley resident Michael Dupray, who advocated for the district, downplayed the legal opinion.
“If more buildings burn to the ground and residents die because of unnecessarily high response times, does (the law firm) Hanson Bridgett really believe that 120 California legislatures will allow buildings and lives to be destroyed?” he asked the board.
Amid the analysis, ECCFPD Board President Joel Bryant said he appreciates all the funding ideas being brought forward and encouraged anyone with other ideas to share.
“Anyone who has an idea, a thought, a plan to bring more resources into this district in order to save lives and bring some relief to our firefighters in the line of duty is greatly encouraged and appreciated,” he said.
To view the complete legal memos discussed at the meeting, visit https://goo.gl/oTYz8P.