Photo courtesy of Metro Creative 

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Fire Board unanimously approved a resolution in support of Measure X, a countywide sales tax initiative that, if passed, could play a significant role in the resolution of the district’s persistent service level challenges.

Measure X, which will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot and requires a simple majority to pass, would assess a 0.5% sales tax across Contra Costa County for a term of 20 years. It is expected to generate more than $80 million annually that will go into the county’s general fund.

“I think the board has made it very clear that they’re supporting this not to address a one-time capital need,” said ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick. “They’re supporting this for a reoccurring, guaranteed revenue stream to address ongoing operations and the deficit of three stations. We’re trying to responsibly get engaged in every conversation we can to address the issues that we have. We’re trying to explore all options.”

Currently, the district operates three stations located in Brentwood, Oakley and Discovery Bay. The district’s strategic plan identified an existing need for six stations to provide a level of fire service in line with standards published by the National Fire Protection Association. Incident response times in the district regularly exceed national standards.

Passage of the measure is no guarantee that the district will see any funding, much less the estimated $13.5 million a year needed to operate the three additional fire stations needed to serve the district’s current need. As a general tax measure, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors (BOS) is prohibited from specifying how those funds will be disbursed until after the measure’s passage.

“If (the BOS) said, ‘Hey, we’re going to give 15% of the collected money to the fire district,’ that could solve a large part of our problem — 5% could maybe fund one station,” said Joe Young, ECCFPD fire board director. “It has the ability to address and help our problem. Whether or not it does is going to depend on how the five supervisors feel about it, if the money is available and how they prioritize the spending ... It could go a long way toward helping us out.”

While the county supervisors are prevented from discussing specific plans for the use of Measure X funds, possible uses are presented in the Contra Costa County Needs Assessment that accompanies the measure. It identifies potential recipients like the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and other programs like early childhood development and housing assistance. It also calls out the needs of the ECCFPD and references the degree to which the district leans on the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) to provide assistance.

The assessment states, “To ensure community health, fire districts across the county must operate efficiently and effectively. Since July 2017, a lack of funding in East Contra Costa has resulted in the operation of only three East County stations covering 259 square miles and over 120,000 residents. This lack of resources has placed additional pressure on neighboring fire districts, mainly the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.”

A countywide poll was conducted after the completion of the needs assessment to determine the level of public support for potential Measure X beneficiaries. More than 90% of respondents supported funding firefighting and emergency preparedness services. Broad support was also indicated for a range of public health services including the prevention of child abuse, expansion of access to mental health care and expansion of senior services.

“I am interested in seeing if Measure X will pass, if the voters are interested in supporting it,” said Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis. “If it passes, I would follow the mandates indicated in the polling and advocate for East Contra Costa.”

In the three years since Helmick took the reins of the district, he has eschewed short-term funding solutions to long-term problems. A pattern of using temporary funding streams in previous years to hire and train firefighters led to layoffs when the revenue evaporated. With the BOS unable to commit to specific funding levels before the passage of Measure X, Helmick said that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and county would be required. The MOU would provide the district a guaranteed revenue stream to support long-term planning and operations.

“If it’s really going to do us any good, it has to be structured,” said Young. “It has to meet our sustainability objective and it has to meet our adequacy objective.”

Passage of Measure X is not a foregone conclusion, though polling has shown strong support among county voters.

“It’s an ask,” said Brian Oftedal, ECCFPD fire board president. “It’s a call to action. There’s nothing (in the measure) that says they’re going to give us even one station, let alone two or three stations. But this could be a long way toward a solution. With the recent CCCERA win and the BOS help, we could get pretty close to resolving a problem that has been a fire district issue for decades.”