The underfunded East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) is investigating the feasibility of declaring a state of emergency.
“We keep talking about turning over rocks and re-turning them over if need be,” said ECCFPD Fire Board President Brian Oftedal during the July 8 fire board meeting. “I’d like to make a request that staff explore and bring back for a future agenda item the possibility of a declaration of emergency. In consideration of Gov. Newsom’s declaration of a state of emergency, I know that there’s been some slight modifications that are more COVID-centric. I do understand that there may not be a path, but I do believe that there may be an opportunity to refresh this white paper. I believe that, based on a number of conversations, there may be an opportunity or opportunities to work with our partners — the City of Brentwood, the City of Oakley and Contra Costa County.”
At the urging of residents, the district initially studied this option three years ago.
“When I proposed it in 2017, it was just a call for help,” said Bryan Scott, East County Voters for Equal Protection committee chair. “It was sort of a political act that would put people on notice that we’ve got a crisis that is beyond the ability of the fire district to deal with.”
The 2017 study resulted in a three-page long white paper authored by the district’s legal counsel, Shayna van Hoften and Jerrett Yan. They concluded at the time that the district did not have the power to declare — or request the governor to declare — a state of emergency. They added that if ECCFPD take that action, the benefits would be minimal.
Despite the conclusions drawn three years ago, Oftedal believes that it’s worth taking another look at the option. Recent changes at the state level may provide opportunity to recoup some expenses.
“Are we in a position where we can creatively declare a state of emergency with our public safety partners to secure opportunities,” Oftedal asked. “We can’t secure revenue with it, but I’m hearing a lot of opportunities out there, and that’s what I’ve directed the fire chief to explore for us.”
ECCFPD provides fire and emergency services for more than 120,000 residents spread over 249 square miles. That coverage is provided by three fire stations. The district’s strategic plan, published in early 2018, identified a current need for six stations to adequately provide public safety services. Another three stations will be required to accommodate expected growth in the coming years.
Funding for the district comes primarily from property taxes. In 1978, Proposition 13 was passed and the legislation determined the percentage of property taxes that would be distributed to the fire service. At the time, East Contra Costa County was largely rural and served primarily by volunteer firefighters. As the population grew and the area transitioned to a suburban/urban landscape, the fire service evolved into a professional force. However, the level of funding remains to this day based on the needs of a volunteer force serving a rural district. The district’s three-station service model is sustainable from a fiscal perspective, but service levels consistently fall short of industry standards, and the added strain of high call volumes takes a toll on firefighters.
“For a long time, we’ve been saying that we are stable over the next 10 years,” ECCFPD Fire Board Director Joe Young said. “From the 10-year standpoint, we can afford to pay for those three stations. But the workload is growing to the point where we’re not operationally stable. Three stations won’t do it.”
ECCFPD Fire Chief Brian Helmick said he doesn’t expect that any opportunity uncovered will be a silver bullet to solve the district’s fiscal challenges, but will instead be one component of a more broad strategy that will also include cost recovery fees, impact fees and community facility district fees.
“I think it’s important for the district to continue to do our diligence and explore all options as we’re working to resolve the challenges we have,” Helmick said. “To be clear, I don’t know what this exercise will produce. That’s not the concern. I think the concern is that, due to COVID, due to our long-term and existing challenges that we have, that we’re not missing any opportunities that may or may not be out there. We’re at the beginning phases of this ... I would anticipate that we’ll be bringing something back to the board at the September board meeting.”