Editor: “We have a crisis in the East County and we all need to work together to come up with solutions,” said Gus Vina, city manager of Brentwood.
Vina was speaking to the CCC Board of Supervisors last month as leader of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Task Force, which is trying to come up with solutions to the structural financing deficiency that exists today and that has existed since the 1970s.
This funding deficiency has forced the district to shrink from eight fire stations to three.
“The three-station model, which is what the district can afford today and into the future, presents a level of public safety risk that is unacceptable, he said. “It puts the fire personnel in a working environment that has to improve.”
Property tax funding, which supports the fire district, was established when the East County was mostly cornfields and fruit trees. The funding was set as an allocation percentage of property tax dollars and has not changed in nearly 40 years.
“The current staffing levels cannot provide a proper service level or meet the needs of the community,” ECCFPD Fire Chief Hugh Henderson told the five County Supervisors.
Henderson went on to explain how on Oct. 28, as all district resources were fighting a house fire in Discovery Bay, his district was unable to respond to calls regarding an unconscious woman, a man having a diabetic seizure and an 82-year-old woman experiencing shortness of breath.
Because of mutual aid agreements adjacent fire districts often come to the aid of their neighbor districts. ECCFPD has lately been using high levels of support from other fire districts because their own resources are quickly depleted and they are unable to respond.
“The system out in East County is not sustainable,” said Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) Fire Chief Jeff Carman at the same meeting. “It is not sustainable for ECCFPD to continue to use our resources at the rate that they have been using them today.”
Property tax funding for ECCFPD is the lowest for any fire district in the county. A comparison of tax-rate areas (TRAs) from the county auditor-controller website shows that other non-East County areas fund their fire districts at a rate two or three times the rate occurring in East County.
Fire districts in other parts of Contra Costa County receive much more of the tax dollar than ECCFPD and cities in East County get more tax support than cities in other parts of the county. For example, only about six and a half cents of every tax dollar paid by Brentwood residents in TRA 10001 goes to ECCFPD, while about 16 cents goes to Brentwood’s city and park services. In Orinda’s TRA 18007 and Danville’s TRA 16007, residents pay about 18 cents of their tax dollar to their local fire district and about seven cents to their city.
Supervisor John Gioia, speaking at the board of supervisors meeting that discussed the ECCFPD funding crisis on Nov. 17, made some logical observations.
“In this case, this fire district gets half of what ConFire gets of the 1 percent (property tax),” he said. “That is what makes this very unique. Other fire districts get much higher help.”
He further highlighted the inequality of the current tax-revenue allocation.
“One could argue if you look at the numbers, Brentwood, Oakley and the county all get a little more of that 1 percent than they would have gotten had East Contra Costa Fire gotten a larger amount,” said Gioia. “If you think about it, the larger amount that Brentwood, Oakley and the county receive in that part of the county are possible because East County Fire gets half of what the neighboring district gets. It’s kind of a fairness issue as well, which is a large part of this.”
This crisis affects the lives and property of all 110,000 residents of the ECCFPD, as well as those who work in or travel through the 249-square-mile fire district.
Our elected officials, members of the Oakley and Brentwood City councils and the board of supervisors, need to support the effort to change the property tax-allocation percentages. The residents of East County deserve equal protection.
Bryan Scott is a Brentwood resident who occasionally becomes a community affairs activist. Those interested in contributing to this grass roots effort can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 925-418-4428.