By over complicating a proposed parcel tax with silly side discussions, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Board of Directors is putting the District at a disadvantage when it comes to attempting to educate the public come January.
The reality is as simple as this. In 2010, you had 8-stations responding to emergency calls. Today thanks to a FEMA Grant we have 5-stations responding. Come November, it will likely drop back down to 3-stations to cover 25-square miles.
Any outreach cannot be successful with a mystery parcel tax figure looming over the public’s head no matter what information is shared.
There is no doubt education will fill the public in on why the District is hurting financially beginning with Prop 13. For starters, when Prop 13 was passed in 1978, the apportionments of taxes were allocated for levels of services at that point in time. Since East County was mostly rural, a very small proportion of our taxes were directed to the fire district.
Currently, East County has matured into a suburban/urban area, home too many families, commuters and new businesses. The demand is not shrinking with planned growth coming to the area it further stretches our fire department even thinner.
Here is a look at the History of the District since June 2010.
- June 2010: ECCFPD voted to close Byron (Station 57) and Discovery Bay (Station 58). District was reduced to 48-firefighters and 6-stations.
- June 2012: Measure S is rejected by voters with just 43.80% approval. 66.6% approval needed to pass.
- July 2012: ECCFPD Closes Bethel Island, Downtown Brentwood, and Knightsen fire station after June failure of Measure S.
- August 2012, FEMA Grant Awarded for a two-year period of $7.8 million with an expiration date of Nov. 2014.
- November 2012: FEMA Grant allows Knightsen Station to reopen. Expected closure date Nov. 2014.
- April 2013: ECCFPD welcomes 10 firefighters replacing previously laid off firefighters after Measure S failed.
- May 2013: Downtown Brentwood Station reopens temporarily thanks to FEMA Grant. Expected to close Nov. 2014 when grant funding runs out.
- July 2013: CONFIRE votes to limit aid to neighboring fire Districts. Only two (2) units are allowed to assist a neighboring District.
That education will come; but it will not be an honest debate until the District explains what it’s first asking of the public. Decisions need to be made now, not in February after education has been completed.
During a long discussion Monday night that accomplished very little, certain Board members appeared more interested in expressing their opinions in order to be heard as opposed to making real decisions on parameters of the parcel tax. This is not unexpected, but rather par for the course by a Board who has looked at everything other than a parcel tax—now they are on a time crunch at no fault but of their own.
If you recall, the appointed Board was put in place to relieve elected city council officials of the duty so it can be a board fully committed to solving the Districts Financial problems without the political backlash.
I understand the Board was new. I understand getting up to speed while looking at all options. I understand this is complicated. However, none of that can be an excuse for the lost time on a revenue enhancement.
For starters, a decision on a consultant should have already been made. Polling should have been completed. Community advocates should already be in place. Introductory informational pieces should already be in draft form. On top of the community outreach, community meetings should have been scheduled with service groups and lists been created by Directors—not District staff.
Most importantly, the outline of the tax should have already been nearly completed so the District can be well positioned to hit its education hard after the Christmas Holiday and New Year. Instead, you have a board, with the exception of Directors Bryant, Kenny, and Cooper who appears to have no sense of urgency in decision making.
Due to a snail’s pace, the most important outreach in public safety in in regards to fire service is going to be performed with incomplete information. Its political suicide and irresponsible!
You have a finance committee who should already have the figures done frontwards and backwards twice over.
- What does it cost to maintain a 5-station model
- What does it cost to maintain a 5-station model with a 5-year sunset
- What does it cost to maintain a 5-station model with a 7-year sunset
- What does it cost to maintain a 5-station model with a 10-year sunset
- The annual cost should have been presented to include inflation or a flat rate over the tax period.
This isn’t complicated as the District is making it. For Measure S, the District has projections 10-years out. Factoring in additional variables (such as removing ALS on engines), the District is looking at a parcel tax of around $125-$150 per year to maintain a 5-station service model.
Unfortunately, the number on the ballot will need to be under $99 in order to pass a tax.
Another way to get to the parcel tax figure is to take the FEMA Grant of $7.8 million and divide it in half for the 2-year period. Divide that number by the number of parcels and you can come pretty close to the number needed to maintain service that way.
According to Director Young, they will not be releasing the actual figure to the public until as late as March. That is not appropriate when the best strategy is to be upfront with the public today and remove the sticker shock over time.
You kill a parcel tax by holding a mystery number over the public’s head because that breaks the public’s trust. You put out the figure during Januarys educational series and adjust based off public opinion—not the other way around.
The District needs to stop overcomplicating this process because it comes down to three things.
- How much is it going to cost me?
- How long am I going to pay for it?
- How does this affect me?
As much as I want to believe other factors matter such as number of stations, insurance rates, salary, Measure S showed us it didn’t matter. The average voter wants simple and they don’t want to feel like they are being cheated with election gimmicks.
Unfortunately, the folks on the finance committee are trying to win with gimmicks and delay tactics.
These gimmicks will be dissected by the Contra Costa County Taxpayers association and Members of the East County Republican Party. What the public should be aware of is neither the Taxpayer Association nor the Republican Party have been involved in the solution, but contributed to the animosity against a tax and refused to be part of any sort of solution—even when asked to contribute.
These two groups simply have chosen to criticize.
Where the District has failed the public at this point in time is showing that there is a problem. The Board has failed to reach out to the public with facts to highlight the problem and allow the public a chance to agree there is even a problem—instead, the Board is simply going to the ballot.
In reality, it’s a four-step process that is being ignored.
- First the public has to understand there is a problem
- Once a solution presented, they have to present to the public to educate
- The public has to understand the problem/solution and agree to it
- Public has a choice to accept the level of service it wants.
By withholding the information such as the parcel tax figure and continuing to delay decisions only hurts the Districts chances in June.
The non-actions by this Board are detrimental to the future of this fire district and not only does the public deserve better; the firefighters deserve the best chance possible to pass a tax which this board is failing.
For the sake of the District, let’s hope a special meeting is called to make all the difficult decisions so the real focus can be on outreach using real facts and figures.
With a tax that will require 66.6% support, honesty and being straight forward is always the best approach.
Anything else will cost you much needed votes.
By Michael Burkholder