On Tuesday, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors approved a plan by a local Task Force to assist the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.
After a short presentation by Brentwood City Manager Gus Vina and ECCFPD Chief Hugh Henderson, the Board approved a resolution while simultaneously adding a series of conditions for the ECCFPD Board to now approve on December 7.
Under the plan, a fourth fire station would re-open in Knightsen per the direction of the Board of Supervisors as a condition for the county to contribute $311,617 to the $2.33 million plan for a period of 16-months as a stop-gap to allow the District to go for a revenue enhancement.
Supervisor Mary Piepho requested the following conditions of approval of the funds:
- ECCFPD would pursue independence special district through LAFCO
- ECCFPD would move to an elected fire board
- ECCFPD would seek a name change
- ECCFPD would create an citizens oversight committee to oversee new funds
- ECCFPD would accept the Chiefs recommendation to open 4th station in Knightsen
Previously, the cities of Brentwood ($666,000) and Oakley ($382,202) approved a recommendation by the Task Force without conditions.
Supervisor Piepho highlighted she previously spoke at the ECCFPD fire board meeting after the last tax failure encouraging the Board to keep the Discovery Bay station open.
“At that meeting, I made a comment because many consider the fire districts financial challenge to be those of the entire county and I stated that I disagreed with that. The county does not have a responsibility to provide a fire protection district revenue, but we do have a role in this. If the cities came together and funded on a per-capita base that I would bring to my board that would equal the counties role and participation on a short term basis,” said Piepho. “The plan was created based on calls for service and I feel that is an appropriate share the cost burden between the two cities and the county.”
Contra Costa County Fire Chief Jeff Carman stated their official stance is they are 100% in support of this plan.
“The system you have in place in East County is not sustainable,” said Carman. “It is not sustainable for the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District to use our resources at the rate they are using them today. We have done many things over the two-years I have been here to try and stop gap the loss they have in East County but its difficult for us in a very busy battalion to provide the resources to them like we do. The hazard, or concern, is this is not understood by the citizens as a stop-gap measure. This is not a continuous process, this will not allow ECCFPD to continue into the future, its something to get them to the ballot. I think that needs to be understood by the citizens.”
Carmen highlighted that they support the recommendation, but that the Executive Chiefs can no longer continue to support ECCPFD with fire aid resources and encourage the Board and others to get behind a ballot measure to help them move forward into perpetuity.
Supervisor Piepho asked Chief Henderson about the 4th station and what station he would recommend be open. Chief Henderson said in a 4-staiton model, the station to be open would be Knightsen (Station 94).
“That balances out the District taking care of all the areas and hits areas hardest it’s with the longest response times. We do have response times in the district that are over 15-minutes every month on Bethel Island area so that would improve responses into eastern and northern Brentwood and taking care of southern Oakley,” stated Henderson.
Piepho then asked Henderson what the “optimal” number of stations would be.
Chief Henderson replied that when we are done with the Master Plan, you will see a number between 10-to-12 stations. He noted that there has been over 60-times the District has not had any resources available.
Piepho explained that the two failed ballot measures were not supported by the public and asked what had now changed?
She answered her own question saying that response times are real and not threats and no longer perceived as threats, insurance rates have increased dramatically and homes are being dropped by insurance companies. She also said she sees an effort now by the community through the grassroots trying to find a solution and help which had not been there in the past.
Piepho then made requests that she hoped her board could support if they were to provided money to the ECCFPD. She read the three recommendations, but wanted to add more.
“If this board approves this funding appropriation that the ECCFPD, that they pursue independence special district through LAFCO,” said Piepho.
She said this would give voters more control on the status of leadership
She then requested a name change away from the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District which she says implies directly that the county is responsible for the status of the District which is not accurate.
“I believe the name creates a misnomer and confusion that I would suggest a name change that it be removed,” stated Piepho. “I am not going to get into naming it, I am just going to ask that the name change be considered by the governing board to something more specific and more representative.”
She also requested, that through LAFCO, there be an elected governing body.
“The voters have the ability to elected those that they want to represent them to make these important decisions and to provide local governance for their local fire protection district,” said Piepho.
Piepho then requested if a funding mechanism moves forward, that there be a citizens oversight committee created for overview of the new funds.
Lastly, she requested the Board support the fire chiefs recommendation for a fourth station that if its open, it be in Knightsen to best serve the operations of the District.
“I believe these recommendations to be common sense. They help build trust within the communities that will be asked to provide increased funding to the district and move it into the 21s century and out of the 18th,” said Piepho.
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff questioned Piepho saying she thought they were an Independent District.
Piepho replied they were a Dependent District because they were Dependent on the Board of Supervisors and that they created the governing Board in existence now, but they do not elect their governing body—an elected board would create the Independent status.
Mitchoff further asked Piepho if she was asking the ECCFPD at the December 7th meeting to accept these conditions. She highlighted her concerns about putting conditions on the funds at this time due to a timeline, but supported the recommendations.
Piepho stated she appreciated Mitchoffs concerns but stated these commendations should have been done 8-years ago.
“Unfortunately, many of these conditions were part of the original transference to the current governing body and they were not carried through. So this is the only time we will have any leverage for this body to put on that body in order to get them moving forward,” explained Piepho. “They should have moved forward 8-years ago, 7-years ago, 6-years ago, 5-years ago, 4-years ago, 3-years ago, 2-years ago, so its important. It’s important to lay the ground work for the public to have engagement and responsibility in the leadership, governance and the decisions be made so that they can hopefully begin to trust a funding mechanism. It’s part of the whole package.”
Supervisor John Gioia highlighted the issue with the ECCFPD has to do with Prop 13 and how all the fire districts in the County get different percentages based on unequal allocations.
Supervisor Piepho explained that is true, but they all pay that same “dollar”.
“The problem with the taxpayer is that they are still paying that same dollar in assessment evaluation and their dollar has been apportioned differently in each community and in this community its apportioned very low but they are still paying that same dollar and that is part of this education and challenge and getting the public to understand why it’s different and what the tools and resources are to fix it,” said Piepho.
Gioia noted that Piepho was correct and that was the point he wanted to make was they are paying the same, but their allocations to areas are different because of the way it was set in 1978.
Brentwood Councilman Erick Stonebarger attended the meeting as a citizen and spoke in public comments thanking the Task Force calling the process frustrating and difficult over the years.
“We are underfunded as a fire district, we talked about the 6 or 7 cents we get as a district. The taxpayer is frustrated because they pay that same $1 but it just gets a different allocation. Oakley supported this on a 5-0 vote, Brentwood supported this on a 5-0 vote, I am here asking you to support it to help us get it to the next step,” said Stonebarger.
He noted that as a public official, his number one priority is public safety saying they need additional revenue as they have failed twice at getting it saying they are not good communicators. He also shared his support of moving to an elected board.
“We need to get to an elected board whether we do it prior to enhanced revenue or in conjunction of the enhanced revenue, it doesn’t really matter to me as long as we get enhanced revenue,” said Stonebarger. “We don’t want to sit up there and appoint personnel up there, we want to get it to an elected board, that is the cleanest way to represent the district as a whole.”
Mitchoff thanked the Task Force calling it not an easy task.
“I want to make sure our public understand that these dollars are not being taken away from other programs, we receive $12 million in a refund from the State of California on unfunded mandates that had not been paid for several years. We have not been paid for several years, but out of that $12 million, that is where this $311,000 is coming from,” said Mitchoff. “It’s important for the public to know its not being taken away from another program.”
Mitchoff highlighted she recognized the residents of the fire district do pay the same dollar, but there were some unintended consequences of Proposition 13.
“I’ve never been a big proponent of the repercussions of Prop 13. In 1978, we have been dealing with this for 37 years, we needed a major tax revolution and it happened but there were many unintended consequences. I believe the authors recognized that,” explained Mitchoff. “The concept was if you stay in your home you weren’t going to have these unknown tax bills going up and down and they can only go up by a certain percentage, but there was a thought that people would move on and that homes would turn over and the base would change by appraised value and selling value. That did not happen for a variety of reasons and no one could have foreseen that. But again, as much as all of us have benefited from Prop 13, when the rates went down and we are now coming back, unfortunately there are communities like mine in Pleasant Hill that are living with the downside of Prop13.”
Mitchoff noted that Pleasant Hill and Orinda both choose different tax mechanisms and therefore did not benefit from Prop 13.
“I very much sympathize with the residents of East Contra Costa County because we too are paying the same tax dollar but they are divvied up differently. That being said, I’ve been seeing this on social media, but I need to say that it serves no purpose for other jurisdictions to criticize the county and other special districts over this allocation of Prop 13 dollars ad going forward this is a great opportunity to provide that education to the public,” said Mitchoff. “We are faced with what is, is, the downside is we are living with what was created within the funding formulas and that being what it is, and I don’t see Prop 13 changing in Sacramento anytime soon, we need to work to find solutions rather than criticizing the different agencies. The concept is the county takes more than its fair share and that is simply not true. Should the Board of Supervisors approve this today, we are demonstrating we are dedicated to doing our part in assisting the funding for a fourth station and improve a fourth station.”
She noted that she would support the temporary stop gap funding solution because other agencies cannot keep assisting East Contra Costa Fire because they also have seen loses.
Supervisor Candace Andersen stated she cared deeply about the state of fire throughout the county while recognizing the domino effect if one agency can’t defend their own territory, however, while understanding the desire and need calling it a serious situation she could not support the motion.
“I am not ready today to support the first or third recommendation until we have a clear path to sustainability. This is something I have gone back and forth on talking to many people,” explained Andersen. “ I am not convinced voters will support another ballot measure. They rejected the one earlier this year. These were not close votes, even Brentwood was only 54% which is nowhere near the 2/3 needed to pass a tax.”
She noted that perhaps response times being impacted, insurance rates going up or ability to get insurance will have an impact but to see a plan if the District could be run more efficiently, cost recovery and alternatives.
“I am concerned with us providing one-time money that voters will think there will always be someone there who will continue to bail them out because someone has it the past whether it be a SAFER Grant, the county coming forward, if this was a loan, it would be a different factor from my standpoint,” said Andersen. “My concern is that we have committed resources within the county and even though I recognize this funding would come from our $12 million that, we have many other competing needs. We have strong demands from the Sheriff’s Department. Although $300,000 plus is not a lot of money, that would certainly go a long way to helping retain existing deputies. We have other things pending that may shed more light on solutions.”
Anderson highlighted her biggest “stumbling block” was the precedent it sets.
“When I first came on the board three years ago, we refused to give our own fire district the money they needed so we did not have to close fire stations and we were very clear that we were only going to handle county funding through our general fund,” said Anderson.
She stated she could not justify this onetime expense.
Supervisor Federal Glover stated that 16-years later they are still battling the sam fight.
“Mary I appreciate you have made some amendments to this so that we can clean up some of those things that were not cleaned up when we initially did this work,” said Glover. “Yes, this could be precedence setting but in terms of public safety whether you are talking about police, AMR or fire system they all lock arms and go hand in hand. We cannot not get involved in this issue because it has an impact countywide. We need to try to do this and I do agree this needs to be one-time money. We have to find a sustainable solution to how we deal with these issues. Labeling it as one-time money and don’t come back will allow the task force, who I believe have done good work, and who have stepped outside the box to find that sustainable solution has to continue its work and make it happen.”
Glover further highlighted that while East Contra Costa residents have lives in danger with below fire coverage, it also creates a situation that impacts his district because CONFIRE engines are in East county which now put Contra Costa fire lives at risk.
Supervisor Mitchoff highlighted that when comparing East Contra Costa Fire to Rodeo-Hercules that East County has paid its bills and kept up to date with payments while living within their means. Rodeo-Hercules has not done that and if they came to the Board for operational money, it would be hard to support.
“I can’t sit here with the information I know cannot recognize or reward an organization who has not run themselves well financially not speaking of the firefighters,” said Mitchoff. “East County has which is why I believe this will be one time money and we are not giving them money to catch up on payments that have not been made, we are giving them money, if this passes, for strictly operational purposes with the message loud and clear… this is onetime money.”
Supervisor Piepho clarified earlier statements made by Supervisor Andersen saying that when the stations were closing, she told the District she would become a partner and help in the discussion.
“The two cities, who are the primary population of area served have stood up and said we are putting our dollars on the table, will you be a partner with us. If the county does not in this relationship, those dollars go away,” explained Piepho. “It’s an all-in or one out it all falls apart. I do not want to have that responsibility of service to the public on this body.”
Piepho highlighted this District is living within its means stating Chief Henderson does the job of five individuals and paying its bills while functioning at a level which the revenue is funding, but the point was the revenue is not sufficient to meet the needs of public safety in the District.
“Operations cannot be run more efficiently than what is currently being operated in East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District,” stated Piepho. “Should the funding mechanism not move forward next year, should it not be successful, then I think everyone will have a rational history and rational background behind this that we did everything we could to ensure public safety and at the end of the day it’s in the public’s hand.”
Supervisor Gioia stated what is new is that the Cities of Brentwood and Oakley have stepped forward putting their money where there mouths are.
“What is new here is that we have not had this level of involvement in a serious way… folks were on a different page. It seems now folks are getting on the same page,” said Gioia. “To me, the modest investment of about $300,000 to move forward is a really good thing because we are paying a price within our own fire district by having this lower level of service at an adjacent fire district.”
Gioia noted that the taxpayers who do not live in East County are also getting a benefit due to auto aid and mutual aid in picking up slack which impacts everyone. He also referenced Supervisor Andersen’s comments about precedence but that each time they get to make the decision as each situation is different.
“In this case, this fire district gets half of what CONFIRE gets on the 1%. That is what makes this very unique. Other fire districts get much higher help,” said Gioia. “Supervisor Andersen made a comment about funding the deputy sheriff salaries, but this is one-time money, and we never use one-time money to fund salary issues. We need to fund that with on-going sustainable revenue. This is a perfect use of one time money because we are making a one-time investment to bridge a gap to move forward and hopefully the larger education effort by the leaders of Brentwood and Oakley and those in unincorporated area can help move this a way that it hasn’t been moved before.’
He further highlighted the inequality of the tax revenue due to Proposition 13.
“One could argue if you look at the numbers, Brentwood, Oakley and the county all get a little more of that 1% than they would have gotten had East Contra Costa Fire gotten a larger amount. If you think about it, what the larger amount that Brentwood, Oakley and the County receive in that part of the county are possible because East County Fire get half of what the neighboring district gets. It’s kind of a fairness issue as well which is a large part of this,” said Gioia.
Gioia stated that placing the conditions on the Fire District makes sense because the county needed to have some levegage and want to get everyone on the same page.
The motion passed 4-1 with Andersen voting no.