Fire district seeking public input

Photo by Tony Kukulich

East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Steve Aubert – seen here on a fire location this past summer – recently discussed the district’s efforts to gather feedback from residents and explain the challenges faced by the district.

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) recently launched a campaign — dubbed “We Are Listening” — designed to gather feedback from the district’s residents and help them better understand the challenges the district faces.

“This is an opportunity for us to hear from the community that we’re serving,” said ECCFPD Fire Board President Brian Oftedal. “At the same time, we can share some information in bite-sized chunks. I think, obviously, the funding challenges we face are complex, and I think it’s pretty apparent that we need to break down what the problems are into more digestible pieces.”

The perpetually underfunded district operates three stations to provide fire, medical and rescue services for an area that encompasses 249 square miles, and includes more than 115,000 residents. With response times that regularly exceed industry standard, the district’s strategic plan published in 2018 identified a current need for six stations to provide an adequate level of service to the district’s residents. An additional three stations are required to accommodate expected growth in the area.

“The effort is to really get out there and have an opportunity to further explain to the community and the constituents what the true story is of the district, and identify how we got to where we are today, how we’re operating off of three stations and explain to everybody the two challenges the district faces,” said ECCFPD Fire Marshal Steve Aubert. “One is past growth that has happened, all the way up ‘til this point in time. The second issue is dealing with the future growth that is still coming in.”

The seeds for the district’s financial constraints were sown in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13. It capped the property tax at 1% of a home’s cash value. The determination at the time was that 7.5% of each tax dollar would be earmarked for the fire service. The allocation was the smallest in Contra Costa County, as other districts received allocations ranging from 12-30%. Reallocation would require action at the state level, and legislators have, to date, been unwilling to take on that fight. At the time, East County was generally more rural, and it was serviced primarily by volunteer firefighters. In the intervening years, the fire service has transitioned to a professional force — a change motivated by state regulations requiring that volunteers meet the same standards as professional firefighters, as well as demographic changes that resulted in fewer available volunteers.

“The existing challenge since 1978, when Prop 13 came in and set the property tax rate, is we’ve never had that mechanism to be able to pay for and staff a professional fire district,” explained Aubert. “With that being said, we are looking at different funding mechanisms in the future to be able to go back to the community and say, ‘In order for us to be able to provide that higher level of service and address all the existing growth that’s come from 1978, up until this year, we’re going to be looking at some type of way to have the community be able to pay for that.’”

A funding solution to close the current three-station gap could be put in front of district voters sometime in 2020. Aubert said that if a measure does go to voters and is approved, two stations could be opened almost immediately, and a third could be opened within a year. Future growth will be addressed by developer impact fees, community facilities district (CFD) assessments and, in some cases, one-time developer contributions.

According to Oftedal, early reaction to the campaign has been positive, and residents interested in providing feedback to the district can do so by email at WeAreListening@eccfpd.org, or by filling out a comment card that is part of the district’s brochure created for the program. Oftedal also recommended that residents provide their comments in person during the public comment portion of each monthly fire board meeting.

“I appreciate when people come up to the podium and speak,” said Oftedal. “That does help me understand what people are working through, or what they’re seeing from their end of the district. That’s what I would highly suggest. I’m always encouraging people to come and join us at our monthly board meeting. That’s where we’re all together, and that’s where we’re all able to hear their voice.”

Additionally, two opportunities to discuss the district in person with Fire Chief Brian Helmick and other members of his executive staff were planned. The first took place at the end of October, and the next is planned for Saturday, Nov. 30, 9 a.m., at Starbucks, 2375 Sand Creek Road, #100.

“We think that we’re on the right path to solidify the district and get us moving in the right direct,” said Aubert. “But again, we’d love to hear from the community, too.”

For more information on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, visit www.eccfpd.org.

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