El Gallito fire_20200831

An electrical problem with a refrigerator at El Gallito Drive In restaurant draws East Contra Costa (ECCFPD) Fire Protection District and Cal Fire firefighters to the 8400 block of Brentwood Boulevard in Brentwood, Calif., Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. ECCFPD Fire Marshal Steve Aubert said an employee and a customer attempted to extinguish the fire. (Tony Kukulich/The Press)

Tensions between the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) and the City of Oakley flared last week when the district made public a wide range of concerns regarding the city’s development practices.

The district took this action after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the city stalled, asserting that the city’s unmitigated growth impacts the district’s fire and rescue capabilities.

A 10-page letter, penned by ECCFPD Board President Brian Oftedal, was sent to the Oakley City Council, City Manager Bryan Montgomery and City Attorney Derek Cole Thursday, Oct. 8. It appeared the following day in an ECCFPD fire board agenda packet issued in advance of the board’s Oct. 14 meeting.

“The city’s practice of permitting additional development without ensuring that new development generates sufficient capital and operating revenue to mitigate the costs of increased demand for fire and medical emergency response and fire prevention services hinders the district’s ability to provide such services to the district’s 128,000 residents,” wrote Oftedal.

The letter details three primary complaints including: the city’s practice of waiving or discounting developer impact fees; the city’s reluctance to require the new developments join community facilities districts (CFD); and the city’s failure to abide by the so-called Station 55 Agreement, a contract between the district and the city created to ensure the construction of a fire station near the entrance to the Summer Lake development necessitated after developer Shea Homes backed out of its obligation to do so.

The district concluded its letter with a request that the city cease and desist from development practices the district called “detrimental” and a list of specific actions with a timeline for the completion of those actions. The letter does not suggest how the fire district might respond if the city fails to complete the actions.

“Frankly, we are puzzled as to why the district has chosen this route,” said Montgomery.

New development brings with it more car accidents, fires and everyday medical emergencies. Fire service impact fees are one-time assessments developers pay intended to offset the increased demand for fire services that result from new development. The use of fire service impact fees is restricted to capital expenditures like new fire stations, engines, tools and personal protection equipment. Impact fees cannot be used to subsidize ongoing operational expenses like salaries. A CFD can be established to collect an annual fee from residents to subsidize operating costs.

According to Oftedal’s letter, a district ad-hoc committee along with staff legal counsel have been working with Oakley city staff and legal counsel to resolve these issues since mid-August. Mayor Kevin Romick was part of a meeting with the district’s ad hoc committee on Sept. 10. However, the efforts have not yielded the results the district was after.

“We’re trying to communicate our challenges, the history that brought us here and the desired outcomes,” said Brian Helmick, ECCFPD fire chief. “That’s what we’re trying to do, communicate with the council. We have not had much success handling this or correcting this at the staff level, and we need to have our ad-hoc (committee) and our boards work together to find a solution to where we are.”

The district’s letter touched off several back-and-forth communications between the district and the city with both entities working to clarify their position. Romick responded to the district with a video from the council chambers and posted on the city’s Facebook page Monday evening, Oct. 12. In it, he responded to a number of the fire district’s assertions stating that the city had established a number of CFDs and that the city had negotiated appropriate fire impact fees for the Contra Costa Logistics Center.

“The building that Amazon will occupy at the Logistics Center and the other building under construction paid the full fire impact fee that will go toward future facility needs of the district,” Romick said in written comments released after his video address. “Contrary to what is said in the district’s letter, the fire impact fee was not waived on the project. The future buildings on-site will also pay the fire impact fee. The district wants the city to charge a higher impact fee for future buildings, but this project was in the works and approved well before the district proposed a higher impact fee in March of this year. The city cannot legally or morally go back and arbitrarily change the impact fee after this project was approved.”

The district contends that Oakley assessed the Logistics Center impact fees using a schedule that was long out of date and in the full knowledge that the district had undertaken an effort to bring those fees up to date.

“The payment of the impact fees at the current rate is insufficient to mitigate the impacts of the project on the district because the city’s impact fees are out of date and insufficient to cover the district’s capital costs of providing service to new development,” wrote ECCFPD Fire Marshal Steve Aubert to Joshua Murray, Oakley community development director on Sept. 26, 2019. “Additionally, the current fee does not take into account the extra costs necessary to purchase the specialized apparatuses necessary service five buildings that are three stories or 35 feet or more in height ... The district requests that the city update its fire facility impact fees to reflect the current costs of service once the study is complete and ensure that the project pays impact fees at the updated rate.”

Despite the district’s request, Oftedal stated that the city’s agreement with the developer exempted the Logistics Center from any increase in fire impact fees. Calculations conducted by the fire district estimate that, had the revised impact fee schedule been used for the Logistic Center project, developers would have been required to pay a fee of approximately $1.2 million. Instead, the fees collected are estimated at $340,000, a shortfall of about $860,000.

“In the same agreement, the developer agreed to pay $850,000 to the city for the city as a ‘community benefit,’” noted Oftedal in a second letter to the Oakley City Council dated Oct. 13.

As of press time, city officials have not responded to a request for details regarding how that payment will be used.

The city council met in closed session to discuss the district’s position Tuesday night. An official response is expected, but was not available at press time. The district was scheduled to discuss the situation during its board of directors meeting Wednesday, Oct. 14. The outcome of that meeting was also not available at press time.