The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Board this week agreed on a new timeline for  asking district property owners to approve a benefit assessment.

Ballots are scheduled to be mailed on March 13, and counted in public at Oakley City Hall on April 27.

The original balloting process was halted Sept. 2, after outdated information on fire hydrant locations and how close parcels were to fire stations was used to determine how much nearly 10,000 of the 44,000 district property owners would be assessed when ballots were initially mailed.

Fire Chief Hugh Henderson said additional measures have been added this time to ensure the data is correct, including using computer coding and mapping, and randomly checking selected parcels to verify the accuracy of data.

The outdated information was obtained from Contra Costa County Fire dispatch data and from the county’s Geographic Information Systems, which are both supposed to be current and maintained by the county. 

The board unanimously agreed to restart the balloting process to allow district property owners to decide for themselves what level of fire protection they want in the community.

If the assessment isn’t passed by a majority vote, it’s expected the district will drop to three stations. The assessment rates for all property owners will have to be recalculated before the new ballots are mailed, but the majority of property owners will find they’d be assessed lower rates, Henderson has said.

“We would be remiss to just let (the district) go down to three stations without doing our darndest to convince the public that (the benefit assessment) is needed,” said ECCFPD Director Steve Smith … “I really feel we have done all we can do, but the public needs another chance to make this decision for themselves.”

Restarting the balloting process will cost the district about another $78,000 on top of $104,000 already spent. The latest round of costs include $63,000 for printing and postage of ballots, close to $7,000 to update the data and close to $8,000 to implement the additional safeguards to ensure the data is correct. 

The district also entered into a contract not to exceed $58,000 with TBWB Strategies, a strategy and communications consulting firm, this week to assist with public outreach and education services during the balloting process. Services include helping the district create fact sheets, social media posts and a mailer.

“I think this next scope of work is very important in that the mailing that we are discussing needs to explain what happened causing us to withdraw the ballot, what we did to fix it and still conveying the district’s need for it (benefit assessment),” said Director Joe Young.

The decision to move forward drew the ire of Alex Aliferis, the executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association. He claimed the proposed assessment violates The Right to Vote on Taxes Act, saying fire services are a general benefit that should be paid for by taxes on all residents, not just assessments against homeowners.

When pressed by the board, the district’s legal staff said it has every reason to think the proposed assessment is entirely defensible.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 1, at 6:30 p.m., inside the Oakley City Council Chambers.