On Tuesday, the Oakley City Council held a work session to discuss its options with regards to fire service and the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.
The move comes after more than 11-entities, including school districts, have rejected a plan at reallocation of funding as proposed by the East County Voters for Equal Protection (ECV). ECV plan calls for generating an additional $7.8 million in funding for the fire district asking nearly 30-entities to give up funds to the fire district.
The school districts, under the ECV plan, would give up $5 million of the total $7.8 million needed. In a letter to ECV, the school districts stated the plan was likely illegal.
The council decided in the end to send a letter to State officials asking for help—similar to what the fire district did last year.
Below is the Discussion:
City Manager Bryan Montgomery noted a lot of progress was made during the East County Voters (ECV) meeting and that it became a discussion. He highlighted how the local schools and special districts had issues with the proposal.
“It’s a very difficult, zero sum proposal,” said Montgomery. “Meaning if one entity, such as the fire district receives more, other tax entities would receive less. It sounds simple and to the voter, none of us want to raise taxes or pay any more taxes, however, if there is a reduction in funding to any of these entities whether it’s the school districts or special entities, that comes with responding reduction in service. Certainly that would need to be explained to voters as they contemplate that re-allocation.”
Montgomery also highlighted a placeholder bill at the state legislator that was relative to re-allocation, however, no real text has been provided which would have the legislator provide a mechanism for reallocation.
“In my opinion, that is probably the only practical or legal way because these entities will not, as they have stated, would not voluntarily provide any of their funding,” said Montgomery. “The legislator would provide the more practical and legal way. How viable that bill is, time will tell. But I think it’s important to recognize that is a possibility.”
Montgomery also highlighted how the City of Oakley has a separate governing entity dealing with the fire district and all of our discussions, the fire board is the authority and it’s their responsibility to deal with the issue is paramount.
“For the cities and the county to continue to try and interject is maybe worthy and well-intentioned but it ought to be reversed and the fire board should take the lead in deciding what should be done and does it make sense and take the actions correspondingly and then ask us to take action that they may recommend,” said Montgomery. “At some point, this needs to land in the lap of the fire district to start discussing what the next steps should be. This bill may be the perfect avenue for the District to follow up on a letter that was sent last year to advocate to the legislator to encourage the cities and special districts to somehow support this bill. Quite frankly, I don’t think this bill will get a lot of support but that is the most viable option presented.”
Councilman Randy Pope asked for a report of what happened at the meeting with ECV and what ideas were out there because he had a firm grasp on the proposal to re-allocate property taxes but didn’t know what occurred at the meeting.
Councilman Kevin Romick stated the meeting was focused on how and if they continue to fund the fourth station because the money is coming from the City of Oakley and City of Brentwood as well as the county.
“The discussion was do we continue to do this. If we do it do we put a timeframe of how long,” said Romick noting that he believed they didn’t have the budget to continue funding the station. “Nothing was resolved. The person how had the biggest impact at the meeting was missing, which was the fire district because they were not included in this meeting. A lot of that came back from the county saying they needed to see what their budget was before they moved forward.”
Pope provided some background saying it costs about $2.4 million to run a fire station for a year and stated the county reallocated $700,000 out from Discovery Bay which is now going to the fire district.
“That leaves us with $1.7 million to $2 million to keep 1 station open if we account what the county is already chipping in through their re-allocation. That is a big nut to crack,” said Pope.
He highlighted that the state isn’t going to do anything unless there is support because they didn’t want to put their “political necks” out on the line.
Pope further highlighted how the county needed to merge all its fire departments into a single department and become a regional fire district, but in the meantime had to protect the residents.
“None of the bureaucrats, staff, city managers, superintends, none of them are going to volunteer their budget because that is how they accomplish their job, that’s how they do the job and mission that we give them” said Pope. “SO this is going to be a political and popular item to do. That is us and our duty to protect our citizens and that is the highest duty of government and we are going to have to make some decisions, priorities, beautification or preventing it from burning down after we build it.”
He further highlighted the first step was passing a resolution for a letter letting state officials know to pass a bill because they need this reallocation.
“The second step, I think we look at dedicating our funds,” said Pope. “Its going to be painful, but the least painful way is to look at our annual increase every year as long as real estate is appreciating we get an increase. We budget 3% each year, this year we got 8%, 5% more and we could take one of those percentage points and put it into a bank account and save it until Brentwood kicks in a little bit, Discovery Bay is already kicking in some, the county kicks in some so we are not the only ones paying.”
Romick noted the placeholder Bill by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (AB 898) specifically states that it would involve only Contra Costa County which would be required to re-evaluate and re-access their property taxes if it moved forward.
“If it goes through the state level and becomes law, they don’t pass it that way, then it has to go for a vote of the citizens of Contra Costa County to determine if that is what they want to do,” explained Romick.
Montgomery added that it’s simply a “placeholder bill” and that the language could change.
“There are some better plans, including a rationalization that really equalization’s fire services across all of the county and that may be part of the legislation,” said Montgomery. “For our legislators, I think we give them a pass if they adopt some bill that encourages us to cooperate and come to some resolution because that is not going to happen. Even getting the elected’s involved, if they leave it up to us to work out this allocation, it sounds good but no one is going to give up their share.”
Montgomery further explained that he encourage the state to create a bill that says any fire district in Contra Costa County that was not getting at least 11% of the 1%, entities within that district boundaries should re-allocate to cause the District to get to 11%. He added the biggest shareholder is the school.
“We would need to tell our residents in good conscious that we are going to take about $5 million out of our school system within the District and pass it to the fire district. I don’t think that would be very supported,” said Montgomery. “So unless the state says yes, the state would have to back fill that funding to the schools or they would literally be without those funds. This is a huge task.”
Romick noted that there were 7-fire districts in Contra Costa County, with a total of 10 entities providing fire service in the county. He then explained how San Diego County was consolidating its fire departments and it may not be a bad idea in Contra Costa.
“I threw out the idea of consolidation to the supervisors and got rather cold shoulders when I thought that the idea that we should take all of our money and not worry about who is giving what. If you look at the whole tax situation, it’s all screwed up that we are all subsidizing one another for whatever,” explained Romick. “If 70% of my taxes are paying for schools in Brentwood and Oakley then somebody else is paying more for the fire district and our schools are getting less subsidized with my income taxes. It’s all a vicious circle. It really doesn’t matter; we all pay 1% and should get the same source and same percentage of coverage of 1% that everyone else gets. The county should take all the money and make sure everyone is covered at the same level.”
He said without the school districts and special districts participation, neither Oakley or Brentwood had the funding to give the East Contra Costa Fire District $3 million each year because more than that is needed to have a fire district—saying that is only 1-station.
“It’s critical we go back to the state and the state acts on the placeholder that is out there and allow the voters to vote on it,” said Romick. “Doing it on our own will not work. The station at Summer Lakes, when it gets built, we are looking at $3.5 million. Where is that money going to come from? As we expand this community we are going to need more fire stations. The citizens of East County are going to need to make a tough decision pretty quick because saying no all the time isn’t going to cut it.”
Mayor Sue Higgins said that during the East County Voters for Equal Protection meeting, they again stressed their plan that they have stressed the entire time that everyone needed to make a line budget to allocate funding in order to help the fire district.
“That really was the meeting,” said Higgins. “A continuous of what we had heard before. It didn’t really end great and no one broke out their checkbook and no Kumbaya’s. I feel like we are hitting an underpass.”
Councilman Doug Hardcastle said they should write a letter and just send it up to the state.
Montgomery noted a letter could help or hurt but they needed others to support the idea of reallocation which he didn’t see the schools, because they have to give up so much funding writing letters in support of the bill.
“The citizens of East County have to make a decision of a reduction in services or more taxes,” said Montgomery. “The reduction in services, some they may not mind, but you are talking about 20-entities. Whether Mosquito Vector goes down a little bit, or the City of Oakley goes down a little bit, but schools and some of the special districts, we have too many interest to find unanimity so it’s very unlikely.”
Pope interrupted the Montgomery stating they are not talking about a reduction in service, but rather are talking about a reduction in the increase of service.
“Every year that property values appreciate, property taxes go up and we taxpayers pay more. That money is paid to the various governmental agencies. That is an increase and every year we budget for inflation, salary and raises, so we budget for 3% increase every year. If we get more than 3% we budget 1% less this year and one 1% less next year,” explained Pope. “If we had gone back in time and had done it this year, we would have an accessed increase value of 7% instead of 8%. So we are not talking about taking lunch away from our employees and won’t be able to make their house payments. They will still get their raises and we will still be able to do our work, we just won’t grow as fast.”
He explained how they are not talking about taking away from the school districts, but rather they will also not grow as fast.
“We are talking about the school district only growing 7% instead of 8% and you do it over 3-to4-years taking a little bit over a time and you have your whole pain free,” said Pope. “It’s the will, its going to take other elected boards like us to tell their staff to put this money aside. We can’t educate our kids if the school burns down. We can’t have our kids out there doing physical education because if they trip and fall and break their leg the fire truck isn’t going to get here for 12-minutes and going to have to wait for an ambulance from Pittsburg.”
Pope again stated it’s not a cut but rather growing a little slower and that if there is a real estate dip, the participation freezes.
Montgomery jumped in saying that he “fundamentally disagreed” with Pope.
“If you are talking about whatever could have been achieved with those resources, we could use the schools as an example, if Liberty Union is about $1.8 million, whatever they would have spent for every year that $1.8 million they would not be able to do so that equals services. We are a service entity, we don’t make money” said Montgomery. “We have all kind of unmet needs, if we propose to you as a city council at the upcoming budget meeting all of the priorities we think we need, it would be somewhat ridiculous because we know we don’t have the money for it, but if we have new money, there is always another need that we left behind. Your task, as you said where does fire relate to that and is it even our jurisdiction. If we are assuming it, where does that need fit with all our priortiies. It can’t be held in isolation, it needs to be compared with all those priorities through a budget process. Is it police or is it fire? If 70% of our budget is police, and we aren’t going to touch police, then you are talking about taking our share out of a smaller base and there will be a reduction of service.”
He further highlighted how if Liberty Union took $1.8 million out every year for 5-years that was $8 million or $9 million dollars—what would that have done for students, that is a reduction in services.
“It is services that will be reduced, something would be less,” said Montgomery. “Nothing is free.”
Romick stated his confusion with the debate because the Fire District needs to add three more stations which is $10 million dollars every year that they would need to come up with.
“I don’t see how setting aside a little bit from everybody and we get to $10 million and spend it all. We need $10 million every single year,” explained Romick. “I don’t see how you proposing we take 1% or 2% of the increased value and then if it doesn’t increase those years or there is a recession because of a cyclical economy we live in, and based on the years we have been in a strong economy we are due for a recession. How do we continue to fund when the money is not there? There has to be a more permanent stable source of funding that doesn’t depend on whether or not home prices increase from year-to-year.”
Hardcastle stated that voters have rejected a revenue enhancement multiple times.
Montgomery asked Mayor Higgins if Assemblyman Jim Frazier could come make a presentation of his proposed bill.
“He said currently he didn’t have text in that and that it was just a placeholder,” said Higgins. “They are still exploring all avenues, so he didn’t have any text to offer.”
Higgins asked if the Council was going to discuss funding the 4th station and put in funding to keep it open for another year which they have not yet talked.
Romick stated right now after their joint meeting with Brentwood and the County, they have had a stakeholder meeting without the fire district and that it was 50-50 to continue to fund it.
Montgomery added that if the City Council did agree to fund the 4th station, their share would be as much as $700k which they would then have to cut from other areas of the City of Oakley.
“That is your call, and if police is not going to be touched, you’re looking at our very small based to find $700k,” said Montgomery. “We will know after the 21st of March what are potential share would be from the fire district.”
Higgins requested that in their next budget session, they look to discuss a “band aid” for the fire district.
“I have to be honest with you, I’d never recommend it because as the vice mayor stated this is how we do the job you asked us to do,” said Montgomery. “You would be eliminating some departments, that resources is not available.”
Pope interjected saying that if they did the “ECV Plan” they would be taking a little bit at a time and it would not be as big of hit or feel the pain because Oakley’s share would only be $45,000 and other entities would also be contributing.
He admitted the plan doesn’t work well when others are not willing to contribute.
Pope proposed that at the very least on Tuesday, they agree to write a letter to State Elected Officials mirroring a letter sent by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District last year—highlighting they haven’t touched re-allocation in 30-years, the history of the District, and become part of the solution.
“I would love to hear from the office of the Assemblymember of what he plans on what is in the works and what type of solutions,” said Pope. “I get the sense no one wants to write the check, but can we at least write the letter.”
Higgins stated she saw no “harm no foul” in writing the letter.
With council direction, the City will draft a “general” letter along the lines of what the fire district sent out last year asking for help.
The discussion on the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District begins at the 1:42:42 mark.
For the staff report and ECV Power Point presentation, click here.