The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) has struggled since its inception with inadequate funding, but a number of recent actions have the potential to reshape fire and emergency services in East County.
As the puzzle pieces of a years-long effort to improve the district’s funding develop begin to fall into place, it appears that passage of Measure X could result in significant and near-term improvements. Official election results are still pending, but as of press time the measure has garnered a commanding 58.1% of the vote.
“I think our biggest win right now is Measure X,” said Brian Oftedal, president of the ECCFPD Fire Board. “Even though there are still a lot of unknowns, the focus needs to be on Measure X and Measure X funding. This is where we really feel that we are going to make our biggest improvements.”
The measure will 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. The district’s hope is that the county will, through a memorandum of understanding, commit to allocating a set percentage of Measure X revenue to the ECCFPD for the measure’s duration.
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors (BOS) were prohibited from discussing how revenue generated by Measure X might be distributed because it is a general tax measure. However, pre-election polling indicated strong public support for improving fire services along with support 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.
“It’s too early to start divvying up the pie,” said Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis. “We will need solid revenue projections as the advisory committee begins their public prioritization process. With COVID-19 cases on the rise, and the county moving back into the red tier, we need to be even more diligent in our fiscal analysis. I will not support a bandage approach to fire service in East County. We are looking for long-term sustainable solutions, and I look forward to the work ahead.”
At the district’s request, the BOS also voted last week to update fire service impact fees in the unincorporated parts of Contra Costa County for the first time since the 1980s. Impact fees are paid by developers to help offset the costs of increased demand for fire and rescue services that result from new development, and revenue generated by impact fees can be used only for capital expenses like stations, vehicles and personal protective equipment. The City of Brentwood adopted the district’s recommended impact fees this summer. The City of Oakley has yet to take up the issue after the city council there continued discussion on the issue on several occasions.
During its Nov. 9 meeting, the district’s board of directors adopted a resolution to establish a fire and emergency services community facilities district (CFD). A CFD assesses an ongoing fee to residents and businesses in newly developed areas that is used to fund operating expenses like salaries. The Amber Lane development in Brentwood is the first project to agree to participate in the CFD.
“Historically, we did not place the appropriate amount of impact fees, and we did not have community facilities districts for the past 30 or 40 years, and it has created the existing deficit that we have today,” said ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick said when Brentwood adopted the updated impact fee schedule. “By placing these impact fees to build future stations and apparatus, and by accompanying them with the CFDs, as the district is doing, we are going to stop the bleeding and effectively address growth as we move forward.”
Next month the board will consider a policy update to automatically oppose any development that does not pay the district’s impact fees or join the district’s CFD.
“After much work, ECCFPD has established a standard for adequate fire support by any new development in the district,” said Director Stephen Smith. “It is time to insist that that standard be uniformly met.”
With the passage of Measure X, the adoption of updated impact fees and the establishment of a CFD, the district’s current and future funding issues may finally be improving. That improvement brings discussion of consolidation with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire)
“We’ve always been a liability, and that’s why nobody ever submitted any interest in consolidating with us,” Oftedal said. “Now our situation isn’t necessarily better right this second, but people are starting to see the writing on the wall.”
The board previously authorized Helmick to spend up to $10,000 on a joint study with ConFire to investigate the feasibility of consolidating the two agencies. Addressing the board Tuesday night, Helmick said that the first phase of that study will be presented to the ECCFPD finance committee Monday, Nov. 16. According to Brentwood City Manager Tim Ogden, the district is scheduled to provide a consolidation update to the Brentwood City Council the following day.
“I’m optimistic that the numbers are going to come out and suggest that we go on to step two,” said Oftedal. “I’m optimistic that the finance committee is going to listen to the material and suggest that we move on to phase two of the study, which is going to take quite a bit more time. I think there’s a lot of positivity and hope right now. There’s a suggestion out there that we have jumped over the hurdle, and we’re there now. We’re still not this huge asset, but we’ve done a lot of things that are right.”