The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District is like a bad marriage which it can’t seem to fix or find a common ground with the communities it serves to improve the overall atmosphere.
Going back 12-years, the marriage was not done out of love, but rather was like an arranged marriage out of convenience in the name of “local control” from Contra Costa County.
To make matters worse, in a shot-gun style wedding, it was done under an old model of consolidation which never merged districts by regionalization—meaning Antioch and Pittsburg should have been included.
Twelve years later, money and communication problems are quickly pushing the District towards a divorce with East County. The District has a revenue problem thanks to the housing collapse and has dropped from 8-stations down to 5-stations—soon to be three stations after recent polling highlighted a June Tax measure will likely fail.
Without a tax passage in June, the District will be reduced to three-stations Nov. 18.
Worse than a money issue has been the Districts inability to successfully communicate with the people they serve to share just how bad things are within the District.
For starters, while the SAFER Grant re-opened two stations, it also delayed the urgency to educate the public on the Districts future—meaning, while the fire Board was meeting, however, there was little to no outreach with the public. The Grant also ensured the public felt no change in service levels so the community had little opportunity to realize the impacts of a reduced station model.
I also would like to add that the firefighters have worked their butts off to ensure the public has felt as little pain as possible. Under a three-station model, it’s next to impossible that little pain will be felt because it will be a lot of pain.
Today, the District is now at a crossroads on where to go. Some want a long-term fix while others suggest a Band-Aid approach. The problem is neither will occur because there are too many personalities in East Contra Costa County to allow for progress.
If you look at the six communities the District serves, all have different ideas, personalities, opinions, and motivations going forward.
- Bethel Island – any discussion on fire service begins and ends with them getting their station back. Without a firehouse on the island, any solution is a non-starter.
- Brentwood – Brentwood has the most calls for service and any additional revenue that is paid into the District should first be returned to Brentwood services. They are stuck on a “return to source” requirement.
- Discovery Bay – They already pay the highest in the District and with a tax they would receive no increase in service. They are not going to approve more funding when two of the three stations that used to service their area remain closed. If they are not going to gain additional service, it’s a non-starter.
- Knightsen – They are still living in the past and feel hurt that the volunteer firefighters were taken away. Any discussion on future fire services in their minds includes volunteers in one form or another.
- Oakley – They have little urgency because they are happy with their one station. They get help from surrounding communities due to central location.
- Morgan Territory – Step child treatment praying there fire services are not further taken away.
These personalities, neither right or wrong, do not even include the firefighters/Local 1230 needs, city leader needs, or the Board of Supervisors requirements.
As you can see, it’s not a district wide approach because the public is not educated about the District; instead it’s an individual community approach which will always prevent success and ensure failure because there is no give-and-take.
This creates a rocky marriage that local leaders have ignored. Most fail to address it because it’s an unpopular topic and there are no winners.
With the exception of Joel Bryant, local leaders couldn’t wait to jump off the fireboard and have run as far away as possible from trying to solve the Districts problems since going to an appointed Board. But a telling stat is neither Brentwood, Oakley or Discovery Bay has had an in-depth discussion about its future fire service in over a year.
If local leaders won’t address the elephant in the room, how is the community supposed to know there is a problem? How is the community supposed to know the history of the District and its problems?
Like a bad marriage, if you ignore the problem for so long it’s difficult to fix. Rumors start to re-create history while false information becomes truths in the minds of people—example of this is salary and pensions are to blame for financial problem when the reality its Prop 13 and the allocation of those funds and the housing market crash.
It all begins with communication and when I hear that local leaders were never made aware of or were personally invited to outreach meetings by fire district—that is troubling. Another way to look at that is if local leaders are not aware how is the public to know?
That is why in 7-outreach meetings, just 144-people showed up which doesn’t include folks who attended multiple meetings so the number is actually lower. That is not a good turnout in an area of over 100,000 people.
While the concept of the District was great in allowing six-communities to share service without solely being financially responsible, it’s no longer working.
Maybe the time has finally come for the District to split up and file divorce paperwork. Under that scenario, Brentwood and Oakley would have a legal obligation to provide fire services while the County does not.
One example provided to me just last night was the idea of trying to combine the Knightsen-Bethel Island culture with that of Brentwood and Oakley being counterproductive—trying to find a solution works for one but not the other and nothing would ever pass a vote of the public because what is acceptable to one community is not acceptable to another.
Under a divorce, Brentwood and Oakley could fund their Fire Departments through a General Fund and voters in each city could decide how much service they want to pay for. Both cities could also go the route of contracting out services with Contra Costa County much like Oakley does with the police department.
Under this scenario, those 12-15 police officers Brentwood wanted to hire would essentially become firefighters. Oakley who wants to become its own police department would likely have to hold off.
If local leaders in either city are paying attention, they would quickly realize from a financial standpoint of their cities, ensuring ECCFPD remains solvent is probably in their best interest to share the cost—which is why they should have been communicating with the public from the start.
Of course, the other solution is ECCFPD and CONFIRE consolidating into one—but that is a slow process and East County would likely be stuck with a three-station model for several years.
Going forward, if the District truly wants to save its marriage with East County, an open line of communication and public outreach needs to begin immediately because it’s headed towards a break up.
While I certainly can relate to the feelings Board President Joel Bryant recent comments when he refers to not having blood on his hands in closing stations where loved ones will die, he can preach that all he likes, but until the community is the one saying it instead of him, nothing will change.
For East County, consolidation may be the only way out of a bad marriage.
By Michael Burkholder