Since January, a loose collaboration of area residents has been promoting the concept of tax-allocation reform to correct the unequal level of fire and emergency medical services protection afforded residents of East County.
The problem becomes evident when one compares the level of services East County gets to similar services in the central and western areas of Contra Costa County. Our fire department gets about 7 percent of the ad valorem property-tax dollar, and the other fire departments get 14 percent, 15 percent, 21 percent or more of the property tax dollar.
All property owners in the county pay the same ad valorem tax rate, and the dollar amount of the tax paid depends largely on the value of the property. The principles of equity and fairness suggest that all residents of the county receive roughly equal treatment under the law, in this case the tax-allocation laws. That is not the case.
Since 2012, the Board of Directors of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) has watched as increasing costs and declining or static revenues have forced the reduction of services to the community. Where once there were ten, and then eight fire stations, there are now just three.
Two attempts to raise tax revenues failed. First, a parcel tax and, most recently, a questionable benefit assessment district scheme. Some directors, perhaps disillusioned by these failures, have decided that their job is not to seek ways to protect the residents of the district, but rather to just operate a fire department as efficiently as possible, accepting the facts of the ECCFPD’s decreasing efficacy.
Neither of these tax measures dealt with the real problem at work here, (which is) the historical structural funding disparity between our fire district and other fire districts in the county. A fire district cannot serve the needs of 115,000 people spread over 249 square miles when receiving just 7 percent of the ad valorem property-tax dollar. That, my fellow residents of East County, is a fact.
Now another attempt to raise taxes for the ECCFPD is being considered. This utility-user tax (UUT) is attractive because, unlike other taxes, which require a two-thirds majority vote, a UUT only requires 50 percent +1 for approval. The goal of this tax is to add up to 10 percent to each electricity, home and cell phone, gas, cable TV and Internet bill residents of (the district) pay, and raise around $18 million in total new taxes.
Unfortunately, even if this tax passes, which will be a boon for the fire district, it still will not affect the real problem at work here, the low tax-allocation rate. And an opportunity to do the right thing, to correct an injustice, to fix the problem, will have been missed.
A self-appointed, government-employee task force has been working hard since June 2015, coming up with a tax that they think will pass. They’ve spent over $219,000 on consultants and advisers. The public opinion polling, according to their survey consultants, indicates that the support level for the UUT is about 20 percent less than necessary for the tax’s passage.
Add up in your head, dear reader, your monthly electricity bill, your home and cell phone monthly bills, your monthly gas bill, what you pay for your monthly cable TV, and your high-speed Internet connection. Then multiply that by 10 percent for each month’s tax, and then multiply that by 12. That’s the tax you’ll pay in a year.
And the real problem will still not be fixed.
Bryan Scott is a Brentwood resident who occasionally becomes a community affairs activist. He is co-chair of East County Voters for Equal Protection, a nonpartisan citizens action committee whose aim is to improve funding for the ECCFPD. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his telephone number is 925-418-4428. The group’s Facebook page is www.facebook.com/EastCountyVoters.